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Longing for Some Ghosts of Christmas Past - A Nostalgic Jaunt Past Some Old Department Store Windows

Updated on April 26, 2012

One of the things I love about Christmas is that it serves as a natural benchmark, a constant against which we can measure our progress from year to year. It's only natural, then, to use Christmas as an opportunity to reflect upon the past.

Miracle on F Street

Growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 60's, one of my fondest Christmas memories was going downtown to see the window displays. Even though my parents and I lived in the Maryland suburbs, on Sundays we would drive into town to go to church. It was the same church where they had met when they were living in D.C. after the War, and where they had gotten married, so there was a lot of tradition there.

One Sunday each year we would take a drive after church and go further on downtown. (Some years we would go on Saturday. The National Christmas Tree was also downtown, on the Ellipse, so we would see that, too. Whatever day we went, we would make an afternoon of it.)

At that time Washington had several great department stores in Northwest section of the city, four of which were Woodward and Lothrop, or Woodies; the Hecht Company; Lansburgh's; and Kann's. And usually their windows were decorated.

Woodies had the best window displays, primarily because they had the most windows -- at least five or six of them, I think. But unlike at stores in some other cities, these windows didn't contain Christmas merchandise. What they contained instead were animated tableaux.

These tableaux were quite elaborate affairs, full of mechanical dolls, not unlike those made famous in Disney's It's A Small World. The dolls would move back and forth on tracks, or would raise or lower their hands or move their heads -- whatever the tableau required. And behind them each tableau would have a background as detailed as anything on Broadway. At Chrstmastime the windows became enormous dioramas, energetic and full of life.

Invariably the tableaux at Woodies would center around a theme. Two that I remember were "Christmas Around the World" and "Christmas Carols." Because Woodies' investment was so large in putting something like this together, they usually had to run the same theme two years in succession. And I remember that at least one year they had a window tying in the downtown theme at one of their suburban stores.

Moving On

Just down the street -- and a bit down the scale in terms of grandeur -- was the Hecht Company. Because they didn't have as many windows, Hecht's couldn't do things quite as magnificently as Woodies, although they usually had animated figures, too, and if I recall correctly, often had a theme.

Lansburgh's was a step down from that. My recolletion of them is spotty, but that's probably because their displays were a bit spotty. With two other department stores doing it up big, it was difficult for Lansburgh's to compete, and some years, I think, they had neither the money nor the inclination to even try. Seeing a good window at Lansburgh's was pretty much of a crapshoot, whereas seeing one at Woodies or Hecht's was almost guaranteed. I know that Lansburgh's did have windows from time to time, but none of them particularly stands out in my mind.

Last of all, there was Kann's. This was never a big store to begin with, and it was one of the first to go under, in the mid-70's. But it was so near Lansburgh's that my parents and would go over just to see. The one experience I remember was disappointing. There were no moving dolls, no theme, and there was only a single window which might have had a Santa Claus or something in it. I don't really know now. But after seeing that window we made a mental note to drop Kann's from our annual tour.

Tea Rooms and Secret Shops

The purpose for Woodies and the others doing all this of course was to get people into their stores, and in those days downtown department stores were still grand. They had tea rooms where you could go and have lunch. They had elevators with operators and cage doors that closed. They had toy departments. (Woodies', I think, was on the eighth floor.) And of course Santa Claus was there so you could tell him what you wanted and get your picture taken with him.

It was a magical world -- one that belonged to kids. I remember one year one of the stores had a special shop set up just for children. It was called the Secret Shop. (I know; I still have the bag.) I don't remember exactly how it worked -- you probably paid at the end, once everything was wrapped -- but the idea was that kids could go into this walled-off area and pick out gifts for Mom and Dad without either parent knowing what the kid got until the presents were opened on Christmas morning.

Sadly, the heyday of the downtown department store has passed, and with it much has changed about the Christmas shopping experience -- at least in Washington, D.C. Lansburgh's is now home to a Shakespearean theater. Woodies houses Madame Tussaud's. Hecht's moved out of the old store and built a new one that has since become a Macy's, and Kann's is barely a memory.

Cynics might say that the world is different today, that the times were more innocent then, that the capacity to hold a child's attention, let alone instill wonder in him, is long gone.

I'm not so sure.

Near Boston, Massachusetts, there's a family that owns a number of car dealerships. Every year at Christmas they decorate the grounds of their estate on a grand scale, then fling open the gates and let the public in. Not only do they have the colored lights and Santas and everything else one might expect for a Christmas display. They also have about forty window boxes, most of which contain animated figures -- elves, fairies, Disney characters, forest creatures, and the like. And from what I could tell, my young daughter was just as enthralled by them as I was by those Woodies windows of so long ago.

And that is the crux of it. Though times may change -- and they certainly do -- nothing changes the essence of the human spirit. As long as children hope and dream, Christmas will always be real.

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