People often debate the official start of the holiday season. Retailers begin the season of Hallowthankmas around Labor Day. Traditionalists insist the holidays start at Thanksgiving. Religious precisionists maintain that the 12 days of Christmas commence on Dec. 25.
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 at Christmas. The multistory emporium could have doubled as Santa’s southern workshop. The storefront windows and department store counters contained the dreams of childhood. The Great Tree with its glistening, basketball-sized ornaments and brightly colored lights presided over the holiday scene.
Each December my family made the annual 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.
The 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 stuck to the chocolate eclairs. 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 the 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 curve in the line revealed the big man himself, clothed in red velvet and ivory fur. Both naughty and nice children had exactly one minute to rapidly recite their Christmas wishes. A bright flash and exchange of cash insured the memories were forever preserved on film.
Another long line snaked its way past Santa’s live reindeer. Nameplates identified all eight of the creatures that pulled the flying sleight. Then the holiday adventure continued on Rich’s roof. Up on the rooftop, the Pink Pig ruled in all of its mechanical glory.
The Pink Pig was actually an elevated train with hot pink cars, a porcine face, and curly tail. Longtime Atlantans recall the two trams were named Priscilla and Percival. It first hung from the ceiling over the Toy Department. It later 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 original Pink Pig to my children, they share a look that says “Father has lost his mind.” In comparison to today’s amusement parks, I suppose the ride does seem a bit antiquated and quaint. Perhaps my description does not capture the quintessential 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 at school I proudly wore my I Rode the Pink Pig! sticker as a fuchsia 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 revival. A newly designed ride for a fresh generation of children now resides at Lenox Square in Buckhead. Both the young and young at heart can once again enjoy its porcine charms during the holidays. When it opened, we took our young teens to visit the Pink Pig’s latest incarnation. They sighed and dutifully climbed aboard to satisfy their father’s nostalgia.
Today our family enjoys its own holiday traditions. We continue to make memories for our children that will always remain a part of their lives. My own childhood recollections 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.
Dr. Bill Burch is the senior minister at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville. www.fumclv.org.