Every Christmas when I was a child in Launceston, a giant model of Santa Claus used to be put up on the outside wall of Cox Brothers store on the corner of Brisbane and St John streets.
He had a mechanically moving finger.
When I was five or six, I was pretty sure this was meant to be a beckoning finger. "Come inside, boys and girls, and see what interesting things there are here for your parents to buy you."
Now I am older, I have to accept the possibility that he was actually being rude and anti-social.
My world was fairly small and innocent in Launceston in the 1960s.
"Going to town", as we called it, was one of the most exciting things that could happen to us. It normally occurred on a Friday.
The centre of the town centre was a city block of Brisbane Street.
At one end of the strip was Coles.
At the other end was Cox Bros.
In the middle was the newsagency, bookstore and stationery shop, Birchalls.
There were a number of other stores but they do not figure in my memory as much.
Cox Bros (which much later became Myers) was by far the biggest and most interesting store for a child.
I think it was where I first rode on the moving stairs we came to know as escalators, and Cox Bros had quite a number of floors packed with interesting things, including toys.
In the lead-up to Christmas, apart from the giant Santa on the outside wall, there was a real live Santa inside.
This then was perhaps where I first sat on Santa's knee and told him a big fat lie that I had been good all year.
Coles marked the other end of the Brisbane Street block for us.
If we had to meet someone on Friday afternoon, we always agreed to meet them outside of Coles.
I have no idea why.
Perhaps it was because it was close to Coles Cafeteria, where we were often taken for treats if we had been good during shopping.
Usually the adults had pots of tea.
I remember drinking glasses of tomato juice.
Once in a while we had lunch there (we called it dinner) which we regarded as something very special.
I can still remember the thick, blue rimmed plates and the clatter of knives and forks and crockery and trays and the din of conversations from the always abundant group of customers as they sipped their soup or ate their fish and chips or the then very exotic Hawaiian steaks.
My father, John.T. Martin, had a sweet tooth so, when we were without my mum, he was more inclined to steer me towards establishments that served excellent banana splits (with lashings of strawberry topping, two scoops of vanilla ice-cream and heaps of crushed nuts), milkshakes and lime spiders.
Sometimes he took me into a lolly shop in the Quadrant, just up the road from the city drag, and bought a bag of delicious balls of coconut ice encased in toffee brittle, before taking me across the road to the bookmakers shop.
He would divide the lollies up, swear me to secrecy (from my mother who was already worried about his weight and high blood-pressure) and he would disappear into the betting shop and leave me standing at the entrance munching on my share.
I remember the din of people and radio broadcasts inside, and the mass of men coming and going; a few knew me and stopped to say something but most were strangers who passed me by. There were happy faces and sad faces.
Walking around the town with my father in the lead-up to Christmas is one of my first memories of the festive season. There was bunting in the street and plenty of Christmass window displays.
My father was a gregarious man who knew a lot of people in the fairly close-knit city so it seemed like we could walk no more than a few shopfronts before he stopped to talk to an acquaintance, shake them by the hand and wish them "Merry Christmas."
At the time, it seemed very odd. What was this shaking hands thing about? It did not appear to be a very grown-up thing to do.
My parents also build up my expectations for seeing the Cox Brothers Santa Claus.
For weeks before it went up, I was told about it.
When it finally materialised, I was understandably excited.
I have no idea how long it had been a fixture of the town, where it came from or how the mechanical, beckoning finger worked.
It was just one of those magical things.
I am not even sure when they stopped putting the Santa up. I think safety reasons were cited.
They were perhaps scared that the mechanical finger would fall off and fall on someone.
Now that would have been really anti-social.
©October 24, 2002, John Martin. All Rights Reserved
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