Half Full/Mark Wilcox

Last Sunday marked one of the most significant days of the year for me when I was growing up. The first Sunday of Advent, in our house, began the countdown to Christmas. It seems today, big box stores can’t wait to start the Christmas shopping season. When I was a kid the season started the day after Thanksgiving. In those days, “Black Friday” referred to the Great Depression, not getting up in the middle of the night to save fifty bucks on a blender. In today’s world, the Christmas season begins as soon as Walmart sells its last barbecue grill.

That’s not how it was in Rock, Mich. in the 1960s. While the Christmas season sort of began with Thanksgiving, in particular watching Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade from Toronto on TV6, it didn’t become “real” until that first Advent Candle was lit at St. Joseph’s in Perkins. To me Advent was something I could hold onto. A countdown of sorts. With the lighting of that first purple candle, Christmas, the best day of the year for me, was within reach. Just four Sunday’s then a couple more days.

Rock is located pretty much in the middle of the U.P. about a half hour’s drive north of Escanaba. When I was young there were only a handful of businesses. The two stores, Larsen Brothers, where my grandmother worked, and the Rock Coop, across the street. There were two gas stations, Campbells City Service, which later became Johnson’s Citgo, and the Midland Cooperative. All of those businesses are gone now,or changed names. There was an insurance office, a credit union, Cliff Carlson’s Barber Shop, a small factory that made logging equipment, a post office, two bars, Herb’s and the Corner Tavern, (I think they’re both still there) and small restaurant. The restaurant began in the ’50s as Les’s Lunch. When I was a kid Maini and Signi Halmioja owned it. If it had a name, I didn’t know it, we just called it “The Restaurant.” (When there’s only one in town, no further distinction is needed). Years later, when I was in my late ’20s, my parents bought the restaurant and ran it as “Mary and Red’s Place” for almost 30 years. It closed when my dad died in 2011, and hasn’t re-opened.

So needless to say there wasn’t a throbbing business district to decorate in downtown Rock. If you wanted to see garland with lights draped across busy streets, you had to drive to Escanaba and Gladstone. Ironically the garland used by those cities and several others in the U.P. was made in Rock by my “Auntie Donna” Sirtola.

We did have a community Christmas Tree in Rock, the lighting of which was one of the highlights of the season. Usually the first or second Saturday after Advent there would be a little ceremony in front of the tree which was foisted in front of Campbell’s City Service. Sometimes the 4-H Club would sing a couple of carols, the lights would be plugged in and then Santa would come. When I was a small child, St. Nick would arrive on the back of a fire truck. Later on, when Pauly Johnson bought the station and sold snowmobiles at it, Santa would arrive riding on the back of a new Arctic Cat. Each youngster that braved the cold winter weather was rewarded with a brown paper lunch bag jammed with in-the-shell peanuts and the kind of candy you only see in December. Cream Drops, ribbon hard candy, those peanut-shapped hard candies with a filling in the center and, perhaps the most unusual candy in the history of confection, Angel Food Candy, also known as sponge candy. It’s the weirdest of all candies and I’m not even sure if it’s around anymore. It has a chocolate outside but when you bit into it (if you could do so without cracking a tooth or losing a filling), you didn’t get the soft gooey filling like my favorite, the cream drops, had. Instead you got something yellow and porous. No, not Sponge Bob, but it was spongy looking and was hard like foam insulation but not as tasty.

After that second Sunday in Advent, events came fast and furious. There were the Christmas pageants at school, church and once in a while there would be something at the Finn Hall, the appearance of Santa Claus (played by my dad) at school and the Christmas gift exchange at the 4-H Club meeting, the first official gift of the season. Another highlight was going to Escanaba for Christmas shopping. I know Escanaba is hardly a big city, but to a kid in 1965 the lights on Ludington Street looked like Manhattan and to me, Macy’s couldn’t hold a candle to the Fair Store’s decorations.

All these events added to the anticipation of the best day of the year. And it all started with a single candle on the first Sunday in December.