Buckhead Tales: Christmas in Buckhead

When I was a child in the 1950s my family lived in Buckhead, just off Wieuca Rd. It was there that I was introduced to the rituals of Christmas. The activities of that holiday were enshrined in long unchallenged traditions. 

The Great Tree atop Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta

The first protocol of Christmas was witnessing the lighting of the Great Tree. Dad would load us up in his shiny black Ford Fairlane and drive us downtown to the Rich’s department store on Forsyth Street. A giant darkened tree could be seen on top of the Crystal Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spanned the street. It seemed that just about everyone in Atlanta crowded in the alleys and byways as they maneuvered for a good viewing position of what was to come. Chorus groups from the public schools around town would be screaming out the traditional carols known to all. After what seemed like an eternity, all the choirs would join together in one final vocal assault on our ears. Straining to reach an upbeat crescendo, all the kids would struggle mightily to hit the final highest notes of Silent Night. At that moment somebody would flip a switch and the tree would burst into its full colorful glory. One year the tradition shifted, and we quit going downtown for the event. The route of our annual pilgrimage changed to the recently opened Lenox Square. They would throw some giant tree up on the roof and make a big deal about turning on the lights, but it just wasn’t the same. 

Rich’s was also the site of the infamous Pink Pig. This was a most strange contraption. It was a rickety monorail that was bolted to the ceiling of the store. Filled with passengers it would shimmy and shake as it moved directly over the nervous heads of the shopping public. Screams could be heard coming from the terrified children trapped within the giant metallic device. Later its route was altered to actually leave the building and make a few hair-raising turns up on the roof. Just as has occurred to the Great Tree, this magnificent tradition was shifted to the suburbs. The sad remnants of the Pink Pig were dragged out to Lenox Square where I am informed it remains to this day.

The original Priscilla, pictured left, on display with the new Pink Pig ride at Macy’s (photo by Isadora Pennington)

The big Christmas tradition at my Buckhead elementary school, Sarah Smith, was the Living Christmas Tree. This involved a bunch of students arrayed on a stepped platform maybe 15 feet high. All the kids would wear white shirts and sing their little hearts out for the benefit of their parents during the annual Holiday Night performance. The night would begin with a few skits involving Santa Claus, the Wise Men, and the usual cast of holiday characters. Then it was time for the most anticipated event of all. The choir would mount the flimsy aluminum scaffolding shaped like a Christmas tree. The tallest student would stand alone on the top step wearing a hat that had an aluminum star stapled on top of it. I guess they were supposed to resemble the traditional angel on top of the tree. Being the worst singer in the history of Sarah Smith, I was relegated to operating the lights that lit the stage. Steve Shuman, I guess his singing voice was like mine, was assigned to operate the lights with me. 

During the final number, as the choir broke into a raucous attempt of the “Little Drummer Boy,” Steve and I got into a minor dispute that quickly escalated into a shoving match. I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a disagreement over who would have the honor of flipping the light switches for the grand finale. Anyway, during the pushing and shoving we suddenly heard a sound like a bag of dirt being thrown off a building. It was our angel. She had gotten dizzy, made the mistake of stepping backward, and fell from the heavens to the stage. A general panic ensued as the choir assumed the entire structure was collapsing and students scrambled for safety. Mrs. Blackwell, our teacher, kept screaming “Oh my God” repeatedly as she frantically rushed to the stage and pulled the curtain closed. Our angel wasn’t hurt but I’m afraid the star hat took quite a beating.

Now, let me tell you about my favorite part of the holiday season: Christmas Eve. The best time for me has always been late at night sitting in the quiet dark with only the tree lights providing illumination. Lost in the silence I become spellbound by recollections of Christmases past. Those memories stretch back through the years like pearls on a silken cord. Memory takes me back through all those earlier times. Past events pass before me like a movie in slow motion: parents who have passed, friends who have strayed, those things not said, opportunities lost, roads not taken. It is sweet, yet bitter, and brings an ache to the heart. I look back and miss the son who was once a boy and now has become a man. I look to the floor hoping to see Lucy, the faithful dog that kept me company in childhood. 

I love Christmas Eve because for the briefest of time the spinning world of deadlines and obligations are suspended for a few precious hours. On Christmas Eve, when we are delivered from the static of busy life, there is an opportunity for what is important to rise from the depths. What do I want for Christmas this year? I guess I could use a change in attitude. Growing up I was taught to help, forgive, and welcome the stranger at the door. I probably lost some of that teaching along the way. The real meaning of the season just might not be about gift transactions but heart connections, to others, as well as to ourselves. What do I want for Christmas? An open heart, or nothing all.

Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales

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