People debate the official start of the holiday season. Retailers introduce ads in the early fall. Traditionalists wait until the Friday after Thanksgiving. Religious precisionists insist December 25th introduces the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Growing up in Georgia, I knew that the holidays began on Thanksgiving night at 7:28 p.m. when Rich’s lighted the Great Tree in downtown Atlanta.
Rich’s glowed bright with magic and imagination in December. The multistory emporium doubled as Santa’s southern workshop. The storefront windows and department store counters contained childhood’s dreams. A native grown pine crowned the building with basketball-sized ornaments and brightly colored lights.
Each December my family made our annual holiday pilgrimage to Rich’s. My sister and I craned our necks to be the first to spot the Great Tree. After parking in a covered deck, we crossed the seven-story bridge spanning Forsyth Street.
The Rich’s bakery produced delectable 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 stuck to the chocolate eclairs. I preferred the rainbow selection of candy fruit slices.
Santa Claus resided on the top floor of the department store. Bolstered by a sugar high, we joined a 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. Naughty and nice children spent one minute rapidly reciting their Christmas wishes. A bright flash and exchange of cash preserved photographic memories.
Another line filed past Santa’s live reindeer. Nameplates identified the eight creatures who pulled the flying sleigh. Then we ascended to the roof where the Pink Pig ruled in all of its mechanical glory.
The elevated train sported hot pink cars named Priscilla and Percival with porcine faces and curly tails. It originally hung from the ceiling over the Toy Department before rumbling and rattling around Rich’s roof. Even small children felt cramped in the cage-like compartments.
For children of my era, the ride felt magical. A polar express to the North Pole could not have been any more enchanting. The next day at school I proudly wore my “I Rode the Pink Pig!” sticker as a pink badge of courage.
The years have passed with Christmases come and gone. After the demolition of the downtown store, the Great Tree relocated to Lenox Square in 2000.
The original Pink Pig 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, Macy’s reinvented the ride at its Lenox Square location. This fall the store announced Priscilla’s latest retirement from the Atlanta cityscape.
I fondly recall childhood’s holiday memories. Today our family enjoys its own Christmas traditions. We are “making memories” for our children and grandchild that will always remain a part of their lives. If they remember the past with the same sense of wonder and warmth that their father enjoys, then I’ll be tickled pink.