When I grew up in small-town Asheville, Christmas was magical. True, it was a secular holiday for my family and me. But who could ignore the excitement of the Christmas parade, the lights and decorations, the music and the spirit of giving and caring that pervaded the community during that time of year? “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” belong to everyone.
I want to share with you a few of my Christmas memories.
On the sidewalk outside the Kress Building on Patton Avenue, one of the civic groups used to set up the Dime Board every year to collect for the Children’s Christmas Fund.
Thousands of dimes were meticulously placed on the board until it was filled. It was a spectacular sight. My father volunteered to man the board; I accompanied him one day and became his stand-in.
We would stand in front of the board shaking a gourd and crying out, “A dime in the gourd is a dime on the board.”
Many people would donate much more than a dime, but those little coins were what filled up the board. Unbeknownst to the public, we always waited till our last day to finish the board, resulting in a rush of last-minute donations. There would be some kind of ceremony, and usually a small child would be the one to fit the last dime in place.
I loved helping out there. You met so many nice people who were both friendly and generous; I guess this was the beginning of my lifetime of harassing people for charitable causes.
In later years, my partner and I were in the surplus business, among other things, and we bought a lot of salvage from the railroad.
On a Friday afternoon about 10 days before Christmas, I received a call from the railway agent that they had a carload of Canadian spruce trees that had been rejected by one of the grocery chains due to late delivery, and he had to get rid of them immediately.
I told him that I had no clue what to do with 4,000 Christmas trees this close to Christmas, but he insisted that I help him out.
Not knowing what I was getting into, I bought the trees for $50—with the understanding that I would have the railroad car empty by the following Tuesday.
He agreed to move the car to the Meadow Road team track near Biltmore Avenue. At this late date, I was able to get only a few radio spots advertising the trees at $3 apiece—a substantial discount from the going rate of $15 or $20. By the time I rounded up some of my employees and got the car opened up, we already had customers waiting in line. It was bitter cold, and we were actually burning some of the trees in fire barrels to keep warm.
Within two hours, we had traffic backed up on Meadow Road, and the police were down there trying to sort out the chaos. We were selling $3 trees as fast as we could load them on top of people’s cars and trucks. It was so funny to see someone plop one in the front of a Volkswagen Beetle and drive off.
In the middle of this bedlam, a man comes running up to me and shouts, “You can’t sell those trees for $3!”
I said: “Really? How many trees do you want to buy?”
He said, “I am the Christmas-tree broker for this area, and you are going to put me out of business.”
He asked me how much I would take to shut the car door and let him remove the trees on Monday. I quoted him a big number, saying it had to be in cash. He said he couldn’t raise that much money this late at night, so I told him if he would bring me $1,000 in cash I would close the car till Monday, when he could bring the rest of the money.
In less than an hour he was back with all kinds of crumpled-up bills, which we counted out on the top of a barrel. He didn’t know it, but I would have sold for a lot less money just to get out of the cold.
We closed up the car and sold the few remaining trees that were on the ground. He came back Monday, paid up and took the trees.
For at least five years after that, our business would get phone calls asking if we had any $3 Christmas trees for sale.
In the early ‘60s, I was driving by the Lexington Avenue farmers market late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Noticing that business was very slow, I decided to see how much I could buy their leftover produce for.
As a trader, I’ve learned that everyone wants something. I knew these farmers wanted to go home to their families; I knew there were local people who needed help to give their families a special Christmas; and I wanted in on some of that feel-good Christmas spirit.
I was able to fill my station wagon with groceries for pennies on the dollar, and in subsequent years some of the farmers would even give me the food when I told them I was taking it to the Salvation Army. Of course they were delighted when I came in, and the food was soon distributed to many hungry recipients. I still tear up when I remember that scene.
You see, the holiday spirit of love and caring does not belong exclusively to the Christian community but is shared by people of all faiths and no faith at all.
And no, even though I’m Jewish, it doesn’t offend me for you to wish me a merry Christmas.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at email@example.com.]