MEMORIES OF CHRISTMAS WINDOWS
by Bill Monson
In my favorite holiday movie, "A Christmas Story," the little hero Ralphie, his two buddies Flick and Schwartz, and younger brother Andy stand with their noses pressed to the corner window of Higbee's, their local department store, staring in awe at a Christmas cornucopia of "mechanized electronic joy." It's a display of toys of all kinds: electric trains, planes, Radio Flyer wagons, tanks, a carousel, a Ferris wheel, Lincoln Logs, toy soldiers, drums, balls, dolls, and Ralphie's great desire--the object which propels the narrative--a Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Range Model carbine air rifle.
Every year when I watch the movie--and I watch it every year to get in the Christmas mood--it takes me back to my boyhood on Blaine Avenue. We Bulldogs would go downtown to take in the Christmas windows along Main Street and to make our wish lists at the Toylands inside.
Tucked into four blocks between Cherry and Chambers were all the stores a youngster could want. McLellan, O.T. Johnson, Woolworth, Kresge, W.T. Grant, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, Black Brothers Hardware, Gamble, Sears Roebuck, Weatherbee's. All had toy departments for Christmas.
And each of them advertised that fact by devoting at least a portion of one of its front windows to a display of toys. Since whoever dressed the windows chose the best examples of the store's inventory or the hottest hopeful of the season, you could get a good estimate of what you'd find inside--and whether you wanted to spend much time investigating. For example, none of us much cared for Monkey Ward's toys. They always seemed chintzy to me, and you had to endure endless replays of Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" on the store's P.A. system.
Galesburg had at least two stores which reached the level of Higbee's in Ralphie's story. O.T. Johnson was probably best; it had a whole walk-through arcade of windows as well as ones which fronted on the street. One of these was always devoted to nothing but toys. Black Brothers Hardware had less space but always used it effectively and with imagination. Weatherbee's was technically a sporting goods store, but it always had a toy department at Christmas so its Prairie Street windows were a close third most years. Bats, gloves, footballs, basketballs, toys--what a combination! Sometimes J.C. Penney would have a good display; but the others--especially the dime stores-- rarely came up to the standards of these. For me, any store with a train layout rated high on my visitation list--especially if the train or trains were running, as in Ralphie's store. Lionel and American Flyer trains still race through my dreams at Christmastime. Even a cheap Marx could hold my attention for a few minutes. Trains were for me what that BB gun was for Ralphie. I got my Daisy Red Ryder carbine--and I didn't shoot my eye out as everyone warned Ralphie--but sadly I never got the train I wanted. Just a bit too far outside my family's budget. But like Ralphie, I could dream.
That's what those Main Street Christmas windows were for us Blaine Avenue Bulldogs--living displays of dreams.
I don't know who could match such displays in Galesburg today. (I don't come back from California at Christmas time.) I do know the big box stores don't have outside windows, and I can't even remember a toy store in Sandburg Mall that would go in for such window dressing. Of course, the Mall has its own train display so I'd be at least partially satisfied shopping there.
One thing seems perfectly clear to me, though. We didn't have as good (and certainly not as many) toys as today's kids do--but we have great memories of those long-gone Christmas windows to press our noses to.
A window of toys--or maybe an illustration from the movie would be good for this column. In a pinch, just some toys.
Next week--Christmas morning. A house and yard with snow or a Flexible Flyer sled.
I realized after I wrote you last week that I had already pretty much reviewed 1953 back in September for my GHS Class of 1953 column--so I'm not sure how I'll handle the January 1 column.
Hope the holiday season brings you lots of happiness.