As I begin my ninth decade of living in Asheville and reflect upon holiday memories from my youth, I find an interesting dichotomy. Here are a couple of examples.
I’ve written about attending the city schools in the 1930s and ’40s and my discomfort at having to endure daily Christian prayers and Bible readings as one of very few Jewish students.
I was, however, very much taken with all the Christmas music, decorations and pageantry, which were, by design, highly seductive.
I even briefly sang in a caroling choir: Yet another musical career dashed for lack of talent, as I was soon relegated to my previously demonstrated virtuosity in playing the triangle.
Surprisingly, however, I was allowed a small part in the annual Christmas play. The most coveted role, of course, was that of Santa Claus — ironically, always played by another skinny Jewish kid. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that his dad owned a big department store in town and lent the school the store’s Santa suit for the play.
My fondest and most exciting memories were of the annual Christmas parade, which started around the courthouse and went across the square, down Patton Avenue and up Haywood Street to the Civic Center.
The parade was the city’s biggest event of the year. Schools, factories and offices closed early so that everyone could attend. During the 1940s, it provided a particularly welcome break from the grim daily war news and the difficult lives that many people led on the homefront while their loved ones fought overseas.
Every passing float and marching band elicited cheers from the enormous crowd, and the clowns triggered gales of laughter in children of all ages.
But the most exhilarating moment was when you heard the magic beat of the award-winning Stephens-Lee Band. The crowd noise exploded, and no one seemed to notice that these extremely talented black musicians were wearing hand-me-down uniforms from the white schools, or that some boasted only a uniform hat. Marching in rhythmic precision with those beautiful, high-stepping majorettes, that band would have made the brass buttons pop off the chest of John Philip Sousa himself.
The spectacle was mesmerizing, and as the chills ran up our spines, many of us would fall right in behind them, marching proudly in step till the end of the parade as if, for those brief moments, we were truly one.
AND THEN THE MUSIC STOPPED.
As we watched the band members pack up their instruments, it never occurred to us (and possibly not even to some of them) that perhaps there was something wrong with the fact that we were now going for a soda at the Woolworth’s counter, where they could not be served. Or that if we went to a movie at the Plaza Theater, we could enter by the front door but their only access was through the back. They had to climb up to the balcony, and if they took the bus home, they’d have to sit in the back.
There seemed to be no concern that these young people not only wore hand-me-down clothes but went to a hand-me-down school, because they weren’t allowed to attend the magnificent Lee Edwards High.
After all, why did the black kids need an education when most would be hired only for menial jobs, and few had any hope of making it to the front office?
Just as adversity drove these young folks to become the top band in the state, however, their remarkably caring teachers, recognizing both the deprivation of the situation and the students’ considerable potential, motivated them to defy the odds by achieving outstanding careers. Many went on to become leaders in their field, and many more have assumed prominent roles in our own community.
Somehow, all this seems to parallel our present life, amid difficult economic conditions and an unbelievable politically and racially charged atmosphere.
We all seem to enjoy the beauty of the pageantry and the joy of the holiday music and, for a brief period, we seem to be marching along together, people of good will of all races, creeds and colors.
AND THEN THE MUSIC STOPS.
I think about our many young servicemen and -women who have bonded together across all social and economic lines to provide a cohesive force. Through their many brave sacrifices, they kept us safe.
They have kept the music playing, and I believe they would want us to join them so that when they return, they’ll come home to a better community.
I wonder if it would be possible for all of us to consciously listen to the lofty words of those holiday songs and, reaching out to some total stranger or family, make a special sacrifice, offering help to those who are in such dire need in these terrible economic times?
There are plenty of organizations that can point the way, such as the Eblen Foundation, YMCA, YWCA, United Way and Salvation Army, as well as various religious groups.
Perhaps these unselfish acts could help us all keep the music playing a little longer, so we could all march along a little farther together.
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.