Friday, December 13, 2013

A 1950's Christmas in San Francisco

The Emporium's Rooftop Christmas Carnival
Christmas began after Thanksgiving in San Francisco in the '50's.

Designers and window decorators worked into the wee hours to create a Christmas wonderland downtown. We savored our Thanksgiving turkey and afterwards, relaxed with apple pie in the living room and planned our annual bus trip downtown to see the decorations.

The early 1950's were a time when you could live "out in the avenues" and leave your door unlocked. Children could play after school outside, unsupervised. Of course you found out that you really were supervised when you did something that was not allowed.... such as cross the street or hit another child. We walked to grammar school each day. It was a good time to be a child in San Francisco.

Christmas was a time to bring out the family ornaments and decorations. It was a simple time when all ornaments had meaning and a history. There was the little glass bell which actually rang. It was from my grandparents' era. There was the beautiful glass peacock with a tail that clipped on a branch. To finish the tree we used aluminum garlands and cheezy icicles. The lights, of course, were multi-colored. Nothing was color-coordinated and nothing was designed by a professional. And our tree came from a nearby lot. We carried it home. It was a real tree on an X shaped wooden stand my father constructed.

We usually went downtown on a Saturday. We took the Muni bus because that is what most people did. It took us through all sorts of neighborhoods on the way. There were churches, Victorian homes, barber shops, ethnic restaurants and a few seedy places too. The trip was always interesting for the quiet little girl who loved sitting by the window.
We walked but others rode the Cable Car to Market Street

Once we made it to the brightly lighted downtown area we walked down Powell, past Union Square,  to Market Street.  The flower stands with rows of bright bouquets added color to the sidewalks. Everyone was dressed up. Women wore a dress coat, gloves and hat. Men wore ties, suits and hats. Women clicked along the streets in their high-heeled shoes. Men tipped their hats when meeting a woman.

Market Street was an exciting street with the Cable Car turntable in front of Woolworths, streetcars running down Market and even private cars. Often there were rabid evangelicals preaching loudly from the corner. Sometimes a few street people begged for some change or mumbled to themselves.  It was a quick crossing over to The Emporium. 

This was a time when you could say the word Christmas, and my Jewish friends equally enjoyed talking about Hanukkah.  Downtown San Francisco was all decked out in its Christmas finery. The Emporium department store always had fascinating moving displays in their windows. We went window to window to ooh and aah over the decorations and the dolls that skated and trains that ran in circles around the tree. But the magic awaited those who took an elevator to the Emporium's rooftop. There we found a Ferris wheel, a little train and more Christmas cheer.  I heard that the last Christmas carnival was held in 1995, the Emporium’s 100th anniversary year and the year the store closed. 

City of Paris Christmas Tree
We might stop by Woolworths for a little something (some thread, a lipstick or a costume jewelry pin)  and then head over to Macy's. We passed the little shop where my mother bought her hats but didn't go in. This was all about Christmas.

Macy's was always beautifully decorated inside and out. The window displays, there too, had moving bears, dancers and more surprises for those who took time to watch at each window. And we did.... it was worth it.

Inside, we looked up at the columns decorated with Christmas balls and bows and up higher at the tall ceilings with garlands. Macy's had a restaurant (or was it Blum's) where we often treated ourselves to a turkey sandwich and chocolate milkshake.

But then it was across the street to see the most amazing tree. The multi-story tree at the City of Paris was always a special destination.  Located in the open rotunda of the department store, the 40 foot natural tree was a sight to behold. Decorated in the traditional style, the tree had toys, glass balls and garlands. We could go up to the different floors to get views of the tree from behind the railings. I always wondered how they got the tree into the store!

Maiden Lane at Christmas was not to be missed. This little lane, reminiscent of a small European street was decorated. But our destination was specific... it was the Grant Avenue floral shop of Podesta Baldocci which is still in existence today. Podesta's had floor to ceiling decorations. From gorgeous poinsettias to amazing white floral decorations, it was the most creative, artistic stop on our tour and it smelled heavenly. 
Podesta's as seen in the movie Vertigo

One of our Christmas stops was The White House on Grant. It was a large department store that filled almost the whole block. My best memories of The White House included the cute little elf, Happy Holly, and the contemporary graphics on the boxes... very chic!

Happy Holly from
The White House Department Store
After a long day downtown, we were tired and headed back toward the bus stop. It was all uphill. But first we passed through Union Square to admire the tree there. Often there were carolers and choirs performing. A street policeman directed traffic at the corner.

The sun was setting as we boarded the #2 Clement bus which took us slowly back to the Richmond District. The bus was often crowded with shoppers with full shopping bags, many of whom had to stand through the first part of the journey. And the bus stopped at every single stop!

It was foggy out in the Richmond when we returned. We ran across the street and down to our home quickly, warding off the chill. The thoughts of Christmas to come and the thrill of the decor in downtown San Francisco warmed my little girl heart.