My father’s favorite Christmas song was “Silver Bells.” Right after Thanksgiving, I would start practicing Christmas songs on the Hammond organ that had been crowded into our small living room after my parents gave in to my begging to please get an organ just like Nancy Pletcher’s. Dad loved to sit in his favorite chair to listen. “Silver Bells” was always his first request. I think he loved the idea of the hustle and bustle of the city. When the song began –“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style” — I knew he was picturing downtown Scranton right in front of the Globe Store. I would return to the song several times during the evening, swiveling from my seat on the organ bench to catch Dad’s face when I played the first few notes. His eyes softened with a look of gratitude. “Aw, you’re playing it for me again!” they seemed to say.
The Globe Store was one of three downtown department stores that bustled all year round in 1960s Scranton, the big city just a short drive from our hometown in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. The Globe presided over nearly an entire block of Wyoming Avenue, with a grand marble entrance in the center. I can still feel the icy cold of the large silver door handles and the way my breath caught for a second as I stepped into the furnace-like heat of the glass-enclosed vestibule.
Our Thanksgiving night tradition was to bundle into our coats, leggings, hats, and gloves just after dark and drive into the city to see the Christmas display in The Globe Store windows. The street would be lined with cars discharging clusters of families clad in heavy woolens, the parents struggling to catch up to their children who were bolting toward the windows as Christmas music blared from loudspeakers. On either side of the entrance were two display windows, each wider than our living room and just as deep. The animated Christmas displays changed from year to year, but always told a story so that you had to start at the far left and make your way down the length of the building to view them in the proper sequence. The stories they told have long since faded from my memory, but a glittering array of images remains: figures in red velvet and white fur gliding across an icy pond, elves in red and green felt raising and lowering their wooden hammers over a row of toy trucks on a crooked workbench, cozy scenes of families gathered around a fireplace where ragged bits of parchment paper in the shape of flames flickered in a blinking orange light. Mom and Dad, like most of the moms and dads, hung back to let the kids get up to the windows. Sometimes when I turned around, I would panic for a moment if I didn’t see them. But my older brother, Tommy, would wordlessly grab my hand to let me know I was safe.
Without being told, we all seemed to understand the proper protocol, making way for the smallest children to scoot in front to get a better view. For how many children were crowded around it was surprisingly quiet. Eventually, parents would gently coax their children away from the windows, though it seemed they were just as happy to linger in the wonder themselves. Maybe they were trying to freeze this moment before returning to their cars where the kids would fight for the window seats.
As much as he loved “Silver Bells,” it was “Silent Night” that always brought tears to my father’s eyes. It was one of the few songs I knew by heart, which was helpful since it was often difficult to see the music through my own tears. Sometimes, my mother and grandmother would sing the hymn in its original language (“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”). Dad and I would join in as we could, humming where we were unsure of the German words. We’d always finish with a repeat of the first verse, which even my brother knew by heart, slowing the ending down and drawing out the final “peace.” Then we would hold our breath in a collective moment of silence until someone peeled away. “Well, I’ve got to go finish that eggnog,” my grandmother would say. Or “Time to finish up the dishes,” from my mother. But Dad remained planted in his chair, swiping at his tears with the underside of his heavy wrists.