“Christmas in Chicago was a special time. Electric lights twinkled, and snow glistened on the ground, just right for an impromptu snowball fight. The bitter cold wind off the lakefront nipped at ears and faces, turning cheeks rosy. Frozen breaths hung in the air, suspended like cartoon balloons over the heads of passersby. All these signs pointed to just one thing; it was time to visit Marshall Fields.” (Marshall Fields- The Store that Helped Build Chicago/Gayle Soucek)
I have fond memories of Marshall Fields. When I was a boy, my mother would dress me to the nines to go downtown and Christmas shop. I would wander the magical toy department while she shopped. Then we would go to the Walnut Room for lunch.
Fields would decorate their front windows for Christmas. They were always themed to Christmas stories. There were animatronic characters twirling around. You walked from one window to the next until you got to the end of the story. Many people went downtown just to see those windows.
Afterwards, we would go to Stop and Shop. Before there was Treasure Island and other stores offering foodstuffs from around the world, there was Stop and Shop. It was another magical place for people looking for gourmet foodstuffs from around the world. It was finely decorated for Christmas time and had even more delicacies on hand. As an adult, I used to do most of my Christmas shopping at Fields, then pick up some delicacies at Stop and Shop.
When I was in college, I worked over the holidays at Stop and Shop in their gift department. One day, the owner, Mr. Gardener, wanted to see me. I went to his office. He was very pleasant. His reasons? First, he told me I was the only one who said hello to him in the elevator. (Note, I did not know who he was.) He said no one ever talked to him on the elevator or when he wandered through the store. Then he held up two green personnel cards. He handed me one and asked me if I knew who the person was. I looked at it. It was my father. I did not know he worked there as a butcher. Years later, I found a picture of my dad behind the butcher counter at Stop and Shop.
The Loop was a wonderful place during the holidays. Even on the coldest or snowiest days, it was a place of wonder, especially after dark, when the decorative lights showed off their colored finery. People would hustle and bustle on State Street with shopping bags full of gifts and goodies.
Somehow, the magic disappeared. Maybe it is because I am an old grumbletonian. Or the retailers lost the celebratory spirit and pared things down, using supposed sales to draw customers instead of magic and wonder.
I found out one thing never changed. There was a recent story about the brownie being invented at the Palmer House Hotel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition- the World Fair. Bertha Palmer, whose husband owned the hotel, asked a pastry chef to concoct a pastry confection that women could carry in their hands. The recipe is still the same as it was in 1893. One point of the recipe was to use as little flour as possible. At least some things never change.