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Christmas in Philly

by Ryan Caviglia

Every major city has a legendary Christmas past. Several still have present day experiences that are worth talking about year after year. Philadelphia, luckily, still retains many of the pieces that made downtown holiday seasons bright. Center City, as Philadelphians have called their downtown for decades, is not home to the same number of anchor stores as it once was, but traditions most central to local memories live on.

The cavernous interior of perhaps the most legendary department store structure in the nation still welcomes visitors daily as it has since the earliest days of the twentieth century. The John Wanamaker building is home to a Lord and Taylor department store, which replaced the old Philadelphia store name in 1997. Anyone familiar with the movie "Mannequin" has seen in guts of this delightful edifice. Millions of square feet, two million in all, once comprised a store of some eleven stories at its height.

Over the years, as in so many cases nationwide, the store shrunk floor by floor, and today Lord and Taylor is three floors. Even now, the bulidings floor plates are so large that three levels feels cavernous. In the middle, rises the magnificent seven story atrium, surrounded by columned levels overlooking it. It is here, and for the last five decades or more, that the famous Wanamaker light show has engaged Philadelphians of all ages each holiday season.

Covering the entire south wall of the atrium, hiding the world's largest pipe organ, a dark green curtain hangs over five levels in height. Hanging in various spots before this curtain, are shapes and figures of various sizes outlined in lights of myriad colors. Snowmen, snowflakes, toy soldiers, ballerinas, and more - they represent the characters of Christmas tales like Frosty the Snowman, The Nutcracker and others. Music accompanies the lights as they switch on and off during different parts of the story. And for years, and no longer as of the last few years, fountains were synchronized to the music at the base of the curtain along the second level mezzanine.

Each hour, the shows entertain first-timers, repeat visitors and shoppers, in a truly American way. The downtown shopping mystique returns each time the holidays come to the Wanamaker building, and you remember just why no shopping center branch store could ever touch the marvel that this store and others like it, could bring about.

Down Market Street to the east five blocks, stands another legendary store: Strawbridge's. Until 1996, this was America's largest chain of family owned department stores, and Philadelphia was proud of that. However, as the legendary G. Stockton Strawbridge aged and grew infirm, his son assumed control of the chain, and the trustees agreed to sell the chain entirely to the May Company chain, not known for their sympathy for downtown locations. Luckily, the store remains over six floors, very attractive, busy and while it is different and not as extensive as it was under the namesake family, it is still comfortable.

Each holiday season, the "Christmas Carol" opens on the fourth floor. This is not a play, but a life sized walk-through of Charles Dickens's classic tale. Up until a few years ago, the store had actors dressed as characters from the story walking about the store during the day entertaining and talking to children and families. Now only the display remains intact, attracting generations of Philadelphians year after year. While this has never commanded the fascination people have had with the Wanamaker light show, it is nonetheless an important piece of Philadelphia holiday fun.

On the sixth floor, the Corinthian Room restaurant survives, feeding families that often only come in during the holidays. Regulars and newcomers alike love the two floor-to-ceiling Christmas trees that stand in the midst of diners at either end of the main dining room. The huge space can seat nearly 500 people when at capacity and still exemplifies the virtues of downtown department store food: affordable, large portions and traditional offerings served in a way that made the common man feel special back when so many couldn't afford exuberant meals.

In general, the Strawbridge store retains much of what has made it particularly handsome over the holidays, red shaded chandeliers on the main level, the great amount of lighted garlands and trees all over the store, the Christmas Carol display and the trees in the sixth floor restaurant.

Of course, there have been casualties over the years among America's fifth largest city's Christmas traditions. For decades, cities like New York, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia all had large locations of the Gimbel's department store chain. Philadelphia's store was a home office of sorts, and Gimbel's was the sponsor of the city's major holiday parades and also a very unique Christmastime tradition: Santa climbing a fire truck ladder into the upper floors of the Market Street Gimbel's, marking his arrival for taking gift requests.

This event was the conclusion of the Christmas parade each year, and throngs of Philadelphians lined the street as far as the eye could see to watch Santa Claus ascend the ladder of a city fire truck into the store that stood at Ninth and Market Streets until 1980. When the store moved into the massive new Gallery shopping complex across Market at that time, it left behind its huge flagship for a blank gray box. It was smaller, boring and had no windows for Santa. Gone was the tradition. And Gimbel's overall was dead by 1987.

The Santa, incidentally, was always a Philadelphia fireman who often was the same guy year to year. A story from one of the Santas was that he forgot his Santa spectacles one year and wore his modern wire-rimmed glasses. The photo in the press of Santa that year had a Santa with obviously non-traditional eyewear, and that was the last year he played Santa. Apparently consequences exist even for costumed firemen.

The Lit Brothers store stood just east of Strawbridge's until 1977, when that entire chain closed. Each Christmas until then, the store downtown drew people with the Christmas Village display, which featured a life-size town with moving people of all kinds doing holiday chores and duties. This is still the favorite of many who can remember it, and while the store is gone, a large part of the village display is set up each holiday season by the Please Touch Museum, which has preserved this landmark town. Better altered than gone altogether. Luckily, unlike the Gimbel's store, the Lit's building, a massive compilation of lovely Victorian buildings united over the years, stands restored and saved from proposed demolition in 1987.

Simply by continuing some of these events in whatever form possible, Philadelphia is luckier than a lot of cities. It does not have Macy's or the Rockefeller Center tree, but it does have special holiday traditions that make it uniquely Philadelphia, just as so many other pieces of William Penn's old town make this city shine.

Ryan Caviglia