Memories of Christmas Past

Yvonne Bahry Caballero, Special to The Chief, Weekly Citizen

Christmas in the city of Donaldsonville during the 50s and 60s was an exciting time as people came into town to shop at the end of each cane season. Bahry’s Auto Lec became a toy land with appliances and automotives taking second stage to the latest toys and Christmas decorations. My mother and father would travel to market in New Orleans early in October for selection.

Two of my children, Dana and Adrien, accompanied their grandparents on one such trip. The girls aged eight and three at the time, were recruited by the company’s Advertising Department to be models in that years Christmas Catalog. Their moment of modeling fame is recalled whenever my mother retrieved the yellowed catalog at family gatherings.

As adults, my siblings and I continued to participate in the family business becoming Santa’s helpers upon arrival of the Christmas merchandise. My brothers unpacked and assembled bicycles and pedal cars while my sisters and I assisted my mother in pricing and displaying dolls including Chatty Kathy, Miss Beasley, Barbie, Ken, and GI Joe; tin and china Tea sets, cowboy hats, holsters, log building sets, electric train sets, hula hoops; Etch-A-Sketch, Mr. Potato Head, and games such as Candy Land and Clue. There were also frosty glass ornaments along with silver Christmas trees, revolving color wheels, lighted Santa figures and wooden Nativity scenes.

Customers on the general merchandise side of the store would peer into the Auto Lec to get a glimpse of what they could expect to find on their children’s Christmas lists once the Auto Lec catalog hit their mailboxes.

The catalog, featuring Dana walking a life-size doll and Adrien riding a tricycle, hit during the week following Thanksgiving along with the opening of the city’s Christmas Cash Give-Away promotion. With each dollar purchase at participating merchants, customers received a ticket that was placed in a chicken-wire barrel on wooden supports. The barrel would be rolled for the drawing of several winning tickets each Saturday evening in front of the Elementary School on Railroad Avenue. The holders of those tickets received cash prizes.

There was excitement in the air on those cold Saturdays and an abundance of customers visiting Toyland to “Lay Away” the items wished for by their children and purchase decorations or appliances for themselves.

On those busy Saturdays, we helped customers find needed items, checked them out, and packaged and labeled their purchases for pickup on Christmas eve. It was the rare customer who walked out with the items purchased since children anticipated a visit from Santa and parents didn’t want their children’s beliefs shattered by an accidental find.

My father always found space to protect Santa’s anonymity, no matter the limited storage within the building even if it meant storing packages in his home. Customer service was a given as customers were assured that space would be found for their packages.

While waiting on customers, we often heard conversations that revolved around Christmas memories of finding fruit in their stockings and red wagons and homemade dolls under a tree that had been cut from the woods. “Can you believe,” they would say “how different things are today.”

Christmas Eve was chaotic as mountains of packages were arranged for pick up or delivery scheduled for as late as 9:00 PM. “Anything,” my father would say “to satisfy the customer.”

Toyland is a memory now and the building no longer belongs to our family, however our differing career paths benefited from the work ethic and business philosophy instilled first by our grandparents, immigrants from Lebanon, who established the mercantile store then by our parents, the proprietors of the Auto Lec A.K.A. Toyland.