On a motorcycle trip through Georgia, I stopped for lunch at a small-town cafe, where I ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a Pepsi. A hush descended over the room, like in an old Western when a gunslinger enters a saloon. The waitress cocked her head, looked at me as if I had three eyes, and said, “Honey, this is Georgia. We serve Coca-Cola.”
“Coke is fine,” I said, and people turned away and resumed their conversations, the crisis averted.
Coca-Cola was born in Georgia, first served in 1886 at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta. Its creator was Dr. John Pemberton, a veteran of the Confederacy who had suffered a war injury and began experimenting with painkillers to relieve his pain, unfortunately becoming addicted to morphine in the process. On the upside, one of his painkillers became Coca-Cola, whose original formula contained certain substances known to alleviate discomfort.
In the dumbest business deal ever made, Pemberton sold the recipe for Coke to a man named Asa Griggs Candler for a purported $2,300 before dying penniless and addicted a few months later.
Say what you will about soft drinks and their contribution to childhood obesity, I will forever be indebted to Coca-Cola for their advertising campaign in 1931, debuting in these distinguished pages, offering the world the portly, red-cheeked, Coke-swilling Santa Claus we all know and love, the very Santa I imagined sliding down our chimney, leaving socks and underwear for my brothers and me, except in 1972, when a green Schwinn Racer appeared under our tree, a gift still unrivaled in my long association with Christmas.
The bicycle, I discovered later, was a gift from my Grandpa Hank, presented to me via my parents, obscuring its origins to hide the fact that I was his favorite grandson. He bought himself an orange Schwinn World the same year, which I now own and press into service on summer evenings. I’m not sure what became of the Best Christmas Present Ever, the green Racer. After I got my driver’s license, I carried the bike up to the hayloft, and then it disappeared, probably during a fevered barn cleaning my father conducted every five or so years. When my wife asks me what I want for Christmas, I tell her a green Schwinn Racer, but not just any green Schwinn Racer, the green Schwinn Racer. If I ever disappear around Christmastime, question my wife.
I remember checking with my parents to make sure the people in charge of Christmas hadn’t moved it or, worse, canceled it.
I’ve heard it said the best Christmases are those you spend with your grandchildren, but I don’t believe it for a moment. I have a granddaughter on whom my grandpa sun rises and sets, but no Christmas has ever rivaled my childhood holidays. I hope the same is true for my granddaughter, that she feels the sweet anticipation I once felt. I remember those days well: counting down the days on the refrigerator calendar, checking with my parents to make sure the people in charge of Christmas hadn’t moved it or, worse, canceled it, which my big brother Glenn told me had happened before. Then on the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Mrs. Sisk and Mrs. Disney, the school cooks, serving us green ice cream in the shape of a Christmas tree, and the gift exchange in our overheated classrooms, then marching three blocks in a single line to the Royal Theater on the town square to watch Christmas cartoons and eat popcorn. It’s all still there in Danville, Indiana — the school, the Royal Theater, the sidewalk connecting the two, a ribbon of memory, tying past to present.
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series, featuring Sam Gardner.
This article is featured in the November/December 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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