The treasured Punkinhead teddy bear of the 1950s. (submitted)

Christmas at Eaton’s in Duncan was magic

As we approached the store’s wintery façade, my heart nearly burst with curious anticipation.

“Every year, Christmas night, Santa Claus begins his flight

Over rooftops, over spires, over trees and telephone wires

In his sleigh a pack of toys, for all good little girls and boys.

He fills the stockings right up tight, and then departs

Through the night…..”

—By Joy Glover Sheldon, age seven, Somenos School, Cowichan, 1954

On wintery days, back in the 50s, we were often snowed in at Stratfords Crossing and had to take the train. As a young child seeking adventure, I thought the walk to the crossing house enchanting. Mounds of marshmallow snow drifts lined the road named Somenos as our little party trooped down to the train. Although we wore only thin rubber boots, we never felt the cold.

The train trip to Duncan was similarly enchanting. The noisy tracks opened up a new world of snow scenes as we clickety-clacked our way into town. But, even more enticing, the sights when we got there. By early December, many of the shops were decorated in tinsel finery and the slushy streets were a perfect backdrop. Dickens-like, the entire downtown looked like a “jolly li’l bit o’ ol’ England”. White-washed buildings held leaded windows framing seasonal scenes. The shop windows were a young child’s delight. Each year we’d eagerly anticipate the new decorations. We’d run excitedly from one window to another.

As we’d stride along with our parents in this marzipan wonderland, we would enjoy the delights of the quaintly decorated five and dime, Westwells (we’d always check for new jigsaw puzzles), and Charlie Onn’s. But my favorite sight was Eaton’s.

The old store, a solid two-storey brick structure, sat on the corner of Station and Craig Streets. For years, it was a fixture. We usually visited it first. I remember my heightening excitement as we walked with Dad from the train station at the foot of the street. As we approached the store’s wintery façade, my heart nearly burst with curious anticipation.

Eaton’s decorated three windows, I believe. The two large ones facing Station Street and one on the side. I remember running joyously from window to window absorbing as much as I could of the festive displays. Manger scenes and Christmas angels, Santa Claus, Santa sleighs, and elves — all in bright colors. The windows were often dark but outlined in wonderful borders of fake snow. Ice skating and snow-sledding dioramas called up delightful fantasies in the mind of an imaginative child.

The displays changed from year to year. In my mind I’d fly from working with the elves at the North Pole to delivering toys with Santa. Perhaps the poem I wrote so long ago was inspired by one of these. I’d stand, spellbound, an excited glow warming my chest. However, the store had further delights to offer.

Each department was similarly decorated in Christmas and winter themes. But the crème de la crème yet awaited us. It stood on the landing, halfway up the stairwell. The most breathtaking sight of all — an enormous Christmas tree. With real store-bought decorations! Not just construction paper chains and popcorn such as comprised our tree at school and most of the tree at home.

I have a recollection of expensive (and breakable!) glittery balls, some with scenes inside. Red cardinals and other birds made of what looked like real feathers. Mistletoe, angels and other delights we never saw on the tree at home. I think the tree was sprayed with artificial snow, yet it looked almost as real as the ones we passed on the way to the train. It, to us, seemed perfect, its branches thick and regular. Not spindly in some spots like the forest one my brother often picked out when he and my dad went into the woods with the axe.

It was enormous. Reaching almost to the top of the high ceiling. Layer upon layer of tinsel and ribbon and gorgeous sparkling wreaths encircled it. It resembled the tiers of a beautifully iced wedding cake. It might actually have been an artificial one, but looked real enough to our child’s eyes. Of course, we were always admonished: ‘Be very careful, the decorations are breakable’.

Yet, the presents. Under the tree sat layers of lavishly wrapped gifts. Their metallic papers and enormous bows beckoned enticingly to itchy little fingers. But we knew we were in for it if we ever touched one. And we were easily convinced that each contained a real present for the well-to-do children of the store managers and clerks. They were not for us. (Probably a story my Dad made up to keep us from grabbing the gifts.) “Don’t touch those presents; they belong to somebody else!”

The packages were probably just fakes but we didn’t catch on. We never dared to imagine what riches those presents held. It would be oh, too cruel to imagine a dolly with eyes that really blinked and not be able to hold her. But, I do remember being given a large red and white candy cane and mandarin orange most years. It was often presented by the store’s Santa in a little bag tied up with ribbon.

An acquaintance in her 70s who also grew up in Duncan, showed me an Eaton “Punkinhead” teddy doll still with mini storybook attached. The illustrated story tells how Punkinhead received a special Christmas gift — a hand knitted sweater from his grandma. The doll is more than 60 years old.

So, after leaving the magical tree, we were content to accompany our elderly father hand in hand, to the top of the stairs. There further surprises awaited…

Joy lives in Ladysmith and is a member of the B.C. Writers’ Federation. This is an excerpt from a manuscript, Cowichan Kid, that she is hoping to have published.

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