“Christmas in Birmingham” by Tim Hollis (History Press, 2015)
I was six or seven years old. After visiting my grandparents’ house on Pearson Avenue one December afternoon in the late 1960s, I persuaded my parents to stop by McDonald’s so I could talk to Santa Claus. Our usual Santa was at Eastwood Mall, but the McDonald’s Santa was giving away Ronald McDonald hand puppets. And I wanted one.
Skinny and pimply faced, the McDonald’s Santa was all of 17 years old and clearly bored. I was the only kid there and he listened restlessly as I told him about the model train I wanted. He then reached into his bag for a puppet, found the bag empty, and shoved it away saying, “Damn.” He motioned to me and said, “Come on.” I followed him outside and around to the rear of the restaurant, where he opened the door to a storage room, tore into a box and pulled out a hand puppet. “Here,” he mumbled, and walked away.
On our way home, I sat in the backseat of the car and examined my puppet. It was a cheap, clear plastic bag with a picture of Ronald McDonald stamped on it, and the thing made my hand sweat every time I put it on. One thing was certain. That guy was not Santa Claus.
This is not my fondest Christmas memory, but it is a good story. And having a good story to tell is a special thing. Tim Hollis, the author of “Christmas in Birmingham” and more than 20 other books, understands this. He finds and tells good stories. Hollis’ books are a pleasing mix of history and nostalgia, and they probably are most appreciated by people old enough to remember the mid-20th century era he describes.
Hollis explores the ways Christmas was celebrated at home and out in public. From Europe in the Middle Ages to Birmingham in the 1900s, Christmas was often celebrated in the streets with parades, partying and window shopping. The city decorated downtown with lights, garland and giant toy soldiers to create an “Enchanted Land of Christmas Lights.” In the 1940s the city planted a “living Christmas tree” at the entrance to Woodrow Wilson Park (now Linn Park), and then another, and another. The trees kept dying, and Christmas kept evolving.
Into the 1960s downtown Birmingham hosted annual Christmas parades, sometimes featuring giant balloons like New York’s Macy’s parade. But because of Birmingham’s power lines and traffic lights, the balloons had to be pulled along at street level rather than soaring high overhead. And Birmingham’s balloons were sometimes knockoffs of the famous characters featured in New York. One Birmingham parade featured not balloons of Charlie Brown and his dog Snoopy, but “Charlie Braun” and his dog “Snooper.” But this probably mattered little to the kids lining the sidewalks.
By the 1960s, the focus of public Christmas activities was moving to indoor shopping malls such as Eastwood Mall and Brookwood Village, where children visited Santa and adults bought presents. When describing both, Hollis has a sharp eye for the good story. Like this: Local television personality Ward MacIntyre, who played Bozo the Clown in the 1960s, was by the 1980s the Brookwood Village Santa Claus. Hollis describes MacIntyre bouncing happy children on his lap, and then sneaking off to grab a Pall Mall cigarette during his breaks.
“Although Christmas,” Hollis writes, “is supposed to be all about joy and love and peace and other such worthwhile topics,” it is also, and long has been, about commerce and worldly pleasures like good food, music, strong drink and lots of presents. But do not think Tim Hollis cynical about Christmas. He recognizes the absurd, but anyone who knows Hollis (and, full disclosure, I have had the pleasure of knowing him for at least 20 years) knows that he glories in the sometimes silly, sometimes kitschy, but always wonderful traditions of Christmas. And that is what makes “Christmas in Birmingham” such a joy to read. Tim Hollis is a true believer.
About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, director of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at Birmingham Public Library, reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state. Since 1970, 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama have been researched with help from the department that Baggett heads. He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history.