My mom is four-years-old in the age-yellowed color photo she hands me.
“Be careful with it,” she says before letting it go of the picture, still in its original envelope.
She is sitting in Santa Claus’ lap in the photo. My grandmother is somewhere out of frame, watching as her daughter told Mr. Claus what she wanted for Christmas moments before the camera shutter snapped.
The pair had rode the bus ride to Shillito’s in Downtown Cincinnati from their home across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky for the visit with Santa. My mom remembers this clearly for a couple of reasons.
First, her mom never learned how to drive. Whenever my grandfather was at work or away they took the bus everywhere. And though Shillito’s was not the closest department store to see Santa near their modest two-story, “shotgun” style home, it was the best along the bus line, she said.
Shillito’s Christmas display was legendary, even in 1964 when the photo she handed over was taken. Animatronic elves and reindeer in life-size dioramas depicting scenes from the North Pole and a child-sized train on tracks lined the way to Santa’s lap in the department store.
“It was amazing,” she said.
I know what she means. We share a collective memory of unique holiday traditions in the Tri-State.
My mom and grandmother took me to see the same display, and Santa, on multiple occasions more than 20 years later. (I also shut the entire store down once when I decided to hide inside a clothing rack, but that’s another story.)
Some of my best memories include seeing “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in 1983 at a neighborhood theater before going to Shillito’s to gawk at the same displays that mesmerized my mother.
And like my mother’s photos, those memories took on additional significance for both of us after my grandmother died in May of 2009 at the age of 90.
Other holiday memories though get fuzzy. I don’t remember when the Shillito’s display shuttered exactly, or how I was told Santa also visited the suburban mall closer to my family’s home. I had to look up the fact the display shuttered in 1987 after Shillito’s became Shillito’s Rikes and then Lazarus, which moved the store a couple of blocks over Downtown. Lazarus, which later became Macy’s, left the elves inside the old department store building that still stands today.
I was 11 when that happened. Piecing it all together, the closure of the display, along with the loss of one of my grandfathers to cancer that year, probably expedited the loss of Christmas magic most kids experience at that age anyway.
There were plenty of other holiday traditions growing up that fed into the season before age dulled its magic though.
I remember my grandfather, the one who died when I was 11, taking me to see the holiday train display set up each year inside the Downtown offices of our regional utility company.
The display we saw was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company in the 1930s to show military personnel how to operate train yards as a build up to entering World War II. In 1946, after the war ended, the B&O gave the display, and trains, to the now non-existent Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company for a Christmas display. A tool made for war became an awe inspiring display of peace for children in the region.
The display celebrates 75 years in Cincinnati this year. In 2011, Duke
Energy, the current utility provider, agreed to move the display from Downtown, where it was dismantled and put back together each holiday season, to the Cincinnati Museum Center (located inside the city’s old train terminal) for permanent display to guarantee future generations could enjoy it, according to Cody Hefner, spokesman for the museum.
As Barry Hildebrant, a volunteer who helps maintain the display at the museum, recently said, as an adult it’s fun to watch the children make their way around the train set at Christmas time.
“The best part to me is watching the kids’ eyes light up,” he said. “You see the excitement.”
I know what he means. I watched my nephew a couple of years ago the first time he saw the holiday train display. His excitement made me realize what my grandfather must have saw when he took me to the display Downtown for the first time. My nephew could have watched those trains for hours and I could have watched him just as long.
On the topic of future generations, there are still those Shillito’s elves. Many of the little animatronic creations endured long after losing their Downtown home.
Two West Side Boy Scout Troops bought a lot of them (there were 130 at one point) in 1997 from Lazarus. The elves and their dioramas were shuffled around to multiple places through the following years before 70 of them were purchased by a local businessman, restored and given a home in the community of Mariemont, Ohio for a public holiday display.
Cody Hefner also pointed out that two of Shillito’s animatronic reindeer are inside the Museum Center’s Holiday Junction that accompanies the Holiday Trains. Children can also ride the small train there.
As I approach middle-age, it is oddly comforting to relive these holiday traditions and share memories. Many of them that I know are shared between parents and their children, grandchildren and grandparents, and tucked away in fading snapshots inside old family photo albums in the city where I live.