Visiting the city, especially at Christmastime, was an event that was anticipated with great excitement. A certain awe sprang up when you witnessed the bustling center of metropolitan life transformed into a sparkling, festive holiday wonderland.
Families traveled into the city from quiet, small-town communities, nestled among rolling hills.Often, a family’s entire Christmas shopping list could be taken care of in a single visit.Children emptied their piggy banks, carefully counting and re-counting the mix of coins inside—silver dimes and copper “wheat” pennies.Housewives brought mason jars out of hiding places at the back of pantry cupboards—jars filled with single dollar bills tucked neatly inside, saved one by one.
Brightly-lit Christmas decorations adorned the high-reaching tops of light poles along city sidewalks, illuminating block after block with heartwarming symbols of the season.Horns honked, and broad downtown lanes filled with the ceaseless motion of automobiles steering over trolley tracks and past train depots.
Sidewalks came alive with throngs of shoppers—men in pants, and women in dresses.Overcoats thickened to shield passers-by against winter winds that wove between tall buildings.Autumn-colored scarves were replaced with those of red and green, displaying personal expressions of holiday cheer.
Voices filled the air, and shoppers greeted one another on crowded streets, exchanging smiles.These were “the good old days,” when a gentleman tipped his hat when approaching a lady, and offered a handshake to fellows.Men held doors open for the opposite gender and pulled out chairs before women were seated.
Corner diners served pots of coffee faster than they could be brewed, and from your spot at the counter, you could sometimes catch a whiff of the sweet-smelling tobacco smoke rolling off an old man’s smoldering pipe.
A quick blast of heat could be felt as revolving department store doors twirled shoppers—with brightly-colored packages tucked snugly beneath their close-drawn arms—in from the street.
Yes, what a feeling to be in the city at Christmastime!Downtown seemed a magical world that only surfaced into existence once-a-year.Christmas tunes poured from gigantic department store speakers.Signs in storefronts read “14 Days until Christmas,” increasing anticipation.Families strolled along streets, walking from window to window, shopping with their eyes. Toy shops. Hat boutiques. Pet stores—with cuddly critters peeking out from behind the panes, waiting to be taken home.Children raced ahead and pressed hands and noses against the glass, surveying the wondrous scenes inside, dreaming of the special gift they were hoping to find beneath the tree—a shiny new bike with a silver bell mounted to the handlebar, or a spotted puppy.
Merchants boxed your purchases—and then wrapped your selections, too!Thick rolls of decorative paper were mounted to countertops for a complimentary service to shoppers.Excellent service extended to every department of the store, not just the check-out line.Clerks took time to measure your feet in the shoe department to ensure you were purchasing the appropriate size.Clothing departments staffed seamstresses to accommodate necessary alterations—guaranteeing a tailored-fit garment.And a visit to the candy counter meant flavorful favorites could be chosen by the piece—or by the whole handful.Lemon drops, peppermint sticks, nutty fudge, and chocolate-covered cherries were all carefully weighed on confectionary scales.
Outside, street-side movie theaters on city sidewalks displayed holiday feature film titles on lighted marquees protruding from building faces.Many Main Street memories were made in the grand theaters of yesterday for a ten-cent admission price.Several classic Christmas films debuted on the big screen in decades past including A Christmas Carol in the 1930s, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in the 1940s, and White Christmas in the 1950s.Films like these have become as much a part of Christmas as holly and berries, and perhaps even more so.
These were the days when movie-goers were treated to a bit of organ music from a mighty Wurlitzer prior to the start of the show. But once the reel of film started flickering, audience members knew that they had better not make a peep because ushers kept order during evening showings and afternoon matinees. If you saw their flashlight beam coming down the aisle, you knew you had better hush—or else!
Newspaper vendors could be found on busy street corners shouting, “Read all about it!” Many of these daily publications sold for a nickel or less, and annually re-printed the much-loved “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter to commemorate the season.Other newspapers included the best-known poem in the English language for their readers’ enjoyment—“Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Street corners were shared by Salvation Army volunteers who collected donations on behalf of the down-trodden.A lengthy ringing of bells urged passers-by to be charitable with those in need.Coins dropped into the red metal kettles with a “clink” meant extra mouths would receive a hot meal for Christmas.Salvation Army bands were also a familiar institution on city corners, as well as in parades, through the 1950s, with the steady beat of their boots pulsing in sync with their instruments.
Laughter echoed from street-side parks as skaters carved circles in city ice-rinks.Couples sat on wooden benches, gazing upward at half-lit buildings against a backdrop of starry skies.Christmas decorations lined the walkways of parks, and with the help of snowy landscapes, created what seemed like a new world in which to momentarily escape daily life.
Once a year, in almost every city, came the day, or evening, of the long-awaited Christmas parade.Crowds swelled.Dozens of floats, carefully planned and decorated by commercial businesses and community organizations, gathered at an assembly point where brass bands were lined up in smart formation.Then, a whistle was blown and the parade proceeded down the center of Main Street.
High school marching bands proudly offered their musical talents behind wide banners displaying their school’s mascot.Uniformed members marched in musical step behind conductors with raised batons.Trumpets sounded, and drums, too, drawing applause every step of the way.
Onlookers squeezed together along curbs lining both sides of the street, huddling close in the crisp, cold air.An ever-so-light blanket of snow would sometimes sprinkle down, decorating the tops of woolen hats with a dusting of white.Spectators could also be seen peering through apartment windows high above the lively scene below.
The fame of the annual Macy’s parade in New York City superseded all parades.Mammoth balloons bobbed up and down the pavement.Countless onlookers greeted the high-flying drama with cheers as each balloon came into view.Parade-watchers in seventh-story windows along the route went eye-to-eye with these visual spectacles which were secured by long ropes held fast by men with childlike hearts.
Children along curbsides shivered with ear-to-ear smiles as they watched the procession of baton twirlers and costumed characters marching in evenly-paced steps—clowns, elves, and popular fictional personalities of the day—hoping to be given a piece of candy or two. Some youngsters were perched on top of their father’s shoulders for a privileged view.The attention of children was not drawn from the lively scene—not even for a moment.Their little eyes were glued to the passing line of holiday enchantment as if real magic were taking place in their very presence, and if they were to look away—or even blink—the whole of it might disappear.
Everyone eagerly awaited the parade’s perennial grand finale—the famed red sleigh carrying Santa Claus himself, safely secured to the top of a trailer.Reindeer, with branch-like antlers, were harnessed to the sleigh, adding to the thrill of wee ones lining the route.“Look, Daddy!” shouted youngsters. “It’s Santa Claus!”
Old Saint Nick was certainly the ultimate crowd-pleaser and the most recognizable face of the day.A wave from the Master Toymaker’s hand drew hoots and hollers—and ooooohs and aaaaahs—from the crowd, and kiddies felt Santa was waving directly at them.“He waved at me!” they shouted to mothers and fathers.“Santa waved at me!”
A few brave souls scurried into the street, arms outstretched and waving a letter postmarked for the North Pole, in hopeful expectation of hand-delivering the urgent document.
Slowly, the procession moved forward, onward to more anxious families further down the street.Eyes followed Santa until he faded from view, and the jolly sound of his “ho ho ho” could no longer be heard.At that moment it seemed to grow just a little bit chillier, as if the generous-hearted Kris Kringle had brought with him a communal warmth for all of mankind, which followed him on down the street.
Then, as the storefront lights flickered out, the crowd made its way past the misty halos of lit lampposts, back to wherever they called “home,” satisfied with the night’s festivities.They tucked themselves into warm beds, comforted to sleep by the feeling that is Christmas.