MOUNT JACKSON — In 2022, Shenandoah County has a birthday — a 250th commemoration that will include 12 months of merriment — a celebration that might just resemble the December holiday season — minus the gifts.

But for far more than those 250 years, county residents have celebrated the religious but secular time of Christmas — a time that has ranged from a simple fresh cut cedar tree with a few candles to lavish animated musical decorations filled with neon lights — a time of parades, programs, and parties. From one century to another, Christmas endures as a time of traditional songs, colors of red and green, bows and wrappings, and familiar elves and reindeer.

And even though Christmas has morphed over the last 100 years, the 25th of December still creates a feeling of excitement in children and adults alike.

At nearly 85, Bill Holtzman, leaning back in his large recliner in his Mount Jackson office of Holtzman Oil and Propane, remembers when he was a boy and the anticipation of Christmas — a sentiment not so different all those decades ago than the sentiment in the 21st Century.

“It was an exciting time because of the presents you got,” he said, a twinkle in his eye, because Christmas was the one time of the year — maybe the only time of the year — when children received gifts.

And even though Holtzman thinks the idea of gifts at Christmas has not changed that much with “cars, trucks and all; we were kids. We would have more fun playing with the boxes in the basement — cutting doors, building things.”

With a smile, he recalls that one pair of leather boots, a prized gift.

“My mother let me wear them to church on Christmas Day,” he said, pointing to his leg where the boot might have been, a boot that had a special pouch where a boy could keep a pocketknife.

“And, of course, my bike,” he said, a coveted Christmas surprise when he was 7 or 8.

That first bicycle was a boy’s or girl’s prized possession in the 1940s just as it is in 2021.

Santa was as much an attraction for little children in the 1930s and the 1940s as Santa is today, but at that time, Santa was an illusion — a red-suited jolly fellow who was never seen in towns, nor was he found smiling in the middle of a store or mall. “We did not see Santas everywhere like today,” Holtzman explained, saying that the mystical being never heard children’s wishes, but all the children waited for Santa because the idea was encouraged by parents and other adults.

“Because Santa was a big deal.” And even today, Holtzman thinks, “If you believe in Santa, Santa is real.”

Regardless of the number of gifts or the type of gifts, Christmas was the time for every little child to anticipate but more importantly behave because not only were parents watching the community also had eyes on every child.

“It [childhood] was wonderful” — a time when children roamed on their bicycles and played in the streets, respectful of community members who knew them by name. “If you did anything wrong, your folks would know about before you even got home,” he said of the close-knit Mount Jackson community in the 1940s and 1950s, a typical sentiment from New Market to Strasburg.

“We were all the same, working people. We really didn’t have that much different from anyone else in town” he said. “Just hard-working people.”

For Holtzman the greatest difference is how the Christmas season has changed within the town. Working on Saturday afternoons at Burkett’s Grocery when he was 12 years old, Holtzman remembers the month of December as a busy time as local businesses prepared for the season. There were no parades or tinsel on the poles — just local people sharing Christmas spirit.

“People did not go to Harrisonburg,” or outside their communities, to shop, he said. “It could take two hours to get to Harrisonburg,” he laughed, a location that seems just next door on a 21st Century highway.

People “came to town. The town would be packed with people — every Friday or Saturday night. The streets would be packed with cars. People would be sitting in their cars,” he said, explaining that places like Wender’s Department Store, Burkett’s store, other grocers, the Nelson Theater, and the dime store would vibrate with shoppers and visitors. Residents from within the town and outside the town came in their best clothes during the holiday season to socialize as much as purchase holiday gifts or weekly supplies.

Several towns in the county had large department stores — Clem’s Department Store at Lantz Mills, Wender’s Department Store in Woodstock, and Lloyd’s Department Store in Strasburg — stores that provided everything from home or farm goods to new shoes. People flocked to these locations because the idea of shopping local was the only way to shop.

“The towns did not decorate, not that I remember. It was the people — they decorated,” he said, a little chuckle escaping as he remembers spending hours decorating.

“It was a competition” within the town. “People would decorate their houses” in the hopes of winning the coveted decorating awards. “I would spend hours putting up decorations, and Ms. Anna Tisinger would put a wreath on her door and win,” he said laughing.

Holtzman said that even though Christmas was for children, Christmas was a time for the community when he was a boy. He remembers more or less Mount Jackson block parties, where neighbors would open their doors to neighbors and share in the season’s goodwill. “We did not have the distractions that we do now — no television, phones, video games. People would just sit and visit.”

“Television killed the small town. Now people just sit in their houses and stare at the screen,” he admitted, describing himself as a very social person — one who enjoys the Christmas season with people.

And as a businessman and a grandfather, he aims to keep the spirit alive. Besides the traditional time with family, the business of Holtzman Oil and Propane shares the season of giving with dozens of families, families his company provides with personalized Christmas treasures.

“There is nothing to miss because I have kept it all,” he said. “I feel it just like a kid.”

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