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Magical Windows of Christmas

Story ID:4590
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:Chicago IL USA
Year:1946
Person:Nancy Kopp
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Magical Windows of Christmas

One of my fondest Christmas memories deals with windows, not just any windows but very special ones for a little child. At least once during the Christmas season, my mother and I rode the elevated train from our suburban home to downtown Chicago. We exited the train at the Marshall Field station where we could step onto the platform and walk a short distance to doors that led into the second floor of the famous department store. Pigeons strutted on the wooden walkway and railings, flapping soft gray wings now and then, drawing my attention. But on the Christmas season trip, we walked down a long flight of steps to the street, leaving the pigeons far above us.

Mother held my hand, and we headed to a special, magical place. Often, the wind and cold air stung our cheeks. Sometimes snowflakes floated lazily over us, but it didn’t matter. A crowd had formed close to the windows of Marshall Field’s, and Mother and I wiggled into the center of the crowd, moving closer and closer to the front until we stood before Christmas Window #1.

There, before us was a wonderland that brought ohs and ahs from the crowd. “Look, Mommy!” could be heard off and on as well, when excited children pointed out the obvious to their mothers.

Marshall Fields began the Christmas window display in 1897 and continued right into the 21st century. During November, the windows were covered with brown paper and not unveiled until the day after Thanksgiving. For weeks, designers and their staff worked long hours to create a story told in eleven successive windows. It might be a fairy tale, or something from a children’s book. The figures became animated in later years, and the designs more and more lifelike. Piles of snow and frost-covered trees looked real enough to touch. A tray of gingerbread men near an oven looked so real, I could almost smell the spicy aroma. A scroll or some other unique prop was used to tell part of the story, and the rest came with our imagination.

The earlier windows were toy displays, a marketing scheme that drew thousands of shoppers. Later, in the mid-40’s the story windows began, and a beloved couple was introduced. Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly was Field’s answer to Rudolph, the reindeer character at Montgomery Ward.

We moved from window to window enjoying the continuing tale. Stories like Snow White and Pinocchio came to life behind the giant windows. They were probably more exciting in the days prior to television, for we had nothing like this anywhere but the movie theaters. By the time we’d walked the entire route, our feet were tingling with the cold, and we headed into the store to warm up.

What better place to thaw out than in the line that ended with a short sit on Santa’s lap. By the time, we neared the front of the line, we’d shed gloves and hats and unbuttoned our heavy coats. I told Santa my dearest wishes, never doubting that he’d remember and bring at least one of the items I’d requested.

I could hardly wait to get home and tell my father all about the Christmas windows and my visit to Santa Claus. He always listened attentively, never interrupting while I chattered on and on and…

When I grew older and could make the trip downtown to Marshall Field’s with my girlfriends, my excitement stayed at a high pitch. I noticed more details then, and my friends and I giggled and chatted, and pointed things out to one another. With rosy cheeks and numbing toes by the time we’d gotten to the end, we headed into the store. Not to see Santa but to savor a cup of hot chocolate and then spend some time wandering through the massive place looking for Christmas gifts for our family members. We might finish the day with a Frango Mint, the candy made famous by Marshall Field’s.

Today, Field’s is no more. The sign in front now says Macy’s. It was a sad day for me when that happened. A piece of my childhood crumbled, never to be the same. But the memory of the Christmas windows and my visits to Santa remain a treasured memory.

Note: I have a story about Marshall Field's that tells more about the store before it became Macy's. Go to ID #285 to read "Please Don't Mess With My Memories"