I work downtown, and in recent decades there have been many changes there. I can't help but remember downtown Peoria when it was the center of our preparation for the Christmas season. In those days, we used to get a lot of snow by Thanksgiving weekend, and I can remember going to the Santa Claus Parade bundled up and often very cold while I waited for Santa to arrive in front of Block & Kuhls Department Store. There were loud booms which got louder the closer Santa got to his destination. The atmosphere of the cold days and going from store to store made the anticipation of Christmas even more festive. On many street corners the Salvation Army Band played holiday and inspirational songs, and Santa's helpers rang their bells. Many of the big department stores had animated Christmas scenes that were very impressive to me. There were also long lines of those waiting to sit on Santa's lap, and Block and Kuhls' toy floor also had an elaborate layout of the latest trains as they ran quickly through a miniature villages or towns.
Some of the most happiest and warmest memories of my childhood and life shared with my grandparents, parents, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins were those spent together at Grandpa and Grandma Catcott's house on Millman Street located in the South Side of Peoria at Thanksgiving, and especially at Christmas time. These are memories many years in the past, but even now when I see the frost-painted pictures on the windows, or smell fresh baking bread, it takes me back to those more innocent and joyful days.

By Christmas, the gifts had been bought, and we anxiously awaited Santa's arrival. We didn't have a car, and to this day I do not remember how we got to Grandpa and Grandma Catcott's house. My father may have borrowed a car from Peoria Candy Company where he worked until his death in 1957. I remember arriving on Christmas Eve as the veil of darkness took over, and as I climbed the stairs of the front of their porch, I could smell the wonderful aroma of baking bread at the bakery just a few blocks away. I remember the lights of the front room shining through the frosted windows. We often were the first ones to arrive since others had to come some distance to get there.
Grandpa was usually helping Grandma in the kitchen.  As I walked through the living room towards the kitchen in the back of the house, I passed through the dining room. Grandma always got her best lace tablecloth out for the dining room table for the holidays. The buffet in the dining room was laden with trays of pressed sugar cookies, anise cookies with pressed designs of Christmas holly, bells, and deer, divinity, and other candies. It would not be until later that Uncle Billy made his famous bowl of Tom and Jerry Mix for the adults, and we children had ginger ale or egg nog. The men were always sitting in the living room sharing their professional accomplishments or bragging about their more recent car purchases. The women were always in the kitchen helping, and everyone usually was talking all at once. We cousins were all over the house amusing ourselves, and having fun with those cousins who we had not seen, sometimes since last Christmas.  Just everyone's arriving and later their departures took forever with all the hugging and kissing.
In my younger years, I used to worry about Grandpa, who for some reason, would have to leave and go to the store at the last minute. I thought he would miss out in getting his present from Santa. However, the door bell would soon ring, and Santa with his very skinny body and sagging pillow tummy and his pack flung over his shoulder would enter to the shouts of joy of the many cousins.


Evidently, Santa couldn't come down the chimney of a house that burned coal.  It is a wonder we all didn't have nightmares since his Santa mask looked like something from the modern day, Halloween movies. As my cousins and I grew older, we figured out that Santa was really Grandpa Catcott. Then the joy came from knowing a secret from our younger cousins. Though Grandpa and Grandma lived on a fixed income, they always seemed to have a little something for all of us, cousins.

It still amazes me how we got my mother's two brothers, my mother, her five sisters, their spouses, and all the children in that very small house. Grandpa and Grandma's Christmas Tree was a small one that stood proudly on a two-tiered round table. A yearly event for me was when I arrived early, I could lay under the table and tree, and watch as the bubble lights slowly warmed up and began to bubble. There was always angel hair depicting snow on the two tiers, and a small cardboard village with houses and a church with some figures with magnets on their feet supposedly ice skating on mirrors depicting ice skating rink.
Another special space in the house was Uncle Billy's room which served also as a den. It had tall folding doors he could close when he slept on a fold out sofa at night. He had some wonderful treasures in his den/room. He had wonderful large books, a globe, and a view-master with, I am sure, every circular slide that was made for it in those days. Uncle Billy was a watch maker who worked for many years for Potter and Anderson, and he was a wonderful and talented photographer.
As is with everyone's life, time passes, and people leave our lives. Grandpa died in 1963 at the age of 89 years old, and Grandma in 1974. Now my cousins and I have married, had children, grandchildren, some great-grandchildren, and some are no longer in our lives. There is not doubt, however, that those of us who are left, as the Christmas Season approaches, allow our memories to go back to those joyful holidays at Grandpa and Grandma Catcott's house, and know that we were surely blessed by those days in the South Side of Peoria.
Submitted by: Cheryl Rimington Criss


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