People often debate the official start of the holiday season. Retailers begin soon after Labor Day, the black and orange of Halloween comingling with the red and green of Christmas. Traditionalists insist the holidays start at Thanksgiving. Religious precisionists maintain that the Twelve Days of Christmas commence on December 25th.
Growing up in Georgia, however, I knew they were all wrong. The holidays officially began on Thanksgiving night at 7:28 p.m. when Rich’s lighted the Great Tree in Atlanta.
Downtown Rich’s was a magical place for children during December. The multistory emporium could have doubled as Santa’s southern workshop. The storefront windows and department store counters displayed the dreams of childhood. The Great Tree strung with brightly colored lights and basketball-sized ornaments presided over the holiday scene.
Each December my family made a holiday pilgrimage to Rich’s. My sister and I craned our necks to be the first to spot the Great Tree. We stared in awe at the towering skyscrapers. After parking in a covered deck, we crossed the seven-story bridge that spanned Forsyth Street.
Rich’s bakery alone made the trip worthwhile. The confectioners produced delectable and delightful treats. The glass shelves groaned under the weight of glazed donuts, frosted cookies, pralines, fruitcakes, pecan pies, chocolate drops, candied apples, toffee, and caramel. My mother loved the fruit bars. My father and sister savored the chocolate éclairs. I preferred the rainbow selection of candy fruit slices.
Everyone in Atlanta knew that THE one and only Santa Claus resided on the top floor of Rich’s department store. Bolstered by a sugar high, we joined the long line meandering through the carpet department. After a two-hour wait, the final turn revealed the BIG MAN himself, clothed in red velvet and ivory fur. Both naughty and nice children had one minute to rapidly recite their Christmas wishes. Then a bright flash and exchange of cash preserved the memories forever on film.
Another long line snaked its way past Santa’s live reindeer. Nameplates identified all eight of the magical creatures that pulled the flying sleigh. Then the holiday adventure continued at the tiptop of Rich’s. Up on the rooftop, the Pink Pig ruled in all of its mechanical glory.
The Pink Pig consisted of two elevated trains named Priscilla and Percival. The hot pink cars boasted porcine faces and curly tails. They originally hung from the ceiling of the Toy Department. Later they rumbled and rattled around a track on Rich’s roof. Even small children felt cramped in the cage-like compartments. Riders enjoyed a grand vista of heat ducts and air conditioning towers while circling the Great Tree.
When I describe the Pink Pig to my children today, they share a look which suggests Father has lost his mind! In comparison with today’s amusement parks, I suppose the ride does seem a bit antiquated and quaint. Perhaps my description does not capture the true experience of the Pink Pig. For children of my era, however, the ride felt magical. A polar express to the North Pole could not have been any more enchanting. The next day I proudly wore my I Rode the Pink Pig! sticker at school as a pink badge of courage.
The years have passed with Christmases come and gone. Downtown Rich’s has long since been demolished. The Great Tree relocated to Lenox Square in 2000. The original Pink Pig first moved to the Festival of Trees at the Atlanta World Congress. Then it retired to a sty of honor at the Atlanta History Center.
In 2003, however, the Pink Pig enjoyed a rebirth. A freshly designed ride for a new generation of children now resides at Lenox Square in Buckhead. Both the young and young at heart can enjoy its piggish charms during the holidays. The nostalgic ride reminds native Georgians of Christmases past.
Today our family enjoys its own holiday traditions. We are “making memories” for our children that will always remain a part of their lives. My own childhood memories of Christmas are magical. If my daughter and son remember the past with the same sense of wonder and warmth that their father enjoys, then I’ll be tickled pink.