by Frank Dunnigan
Now that Thanksgiving is safely behind us, December looms ahead, filled with holiday celebrations. As I look back across a landscape of sixty Christmas seasons now, there are a few special memories that consistently rise to the surface of my aging brain. Here are some of the things that still define the holiday season for many of us who grew up in the Outside Lands.
City of Paris Tree—Under that magnificent old stained glass rotunda with an image of the 1850 sailing ship, stood the City of Paris Christmas tree. It was truly a sight to behold, with thousands of hand-placed lights and ornaments. Without a doubt, it was not Christmas until we had visited the store and observed the tree from the balustrade of every single floor. (City of Paris tree on San Francisco Public Library History Center site.)
Emporium Roof Rides—This was the Disneyland of Christmas in San Francisco—both Downtown and Stonestown. Grandma would always take us there while Mom and Dad went about their shopping on the floors below. A visit to roof rides and a picture with Santa was always an important part of each holiday season. (Emporium Roof Rides on San Francisco Public Library History Center site.)
Street Decorations—Our 2600 block of 18th Avenue was decked out with outdoor lights on every house from the second week of December through the coming of the Magi on the 6th of January. Even our neighbors who adhered to other religious traditions (or to none at all) joined in with lighted Stars of David, Santa Claus cut-outs in the windows, or evergreen wreaths with big red bows. At the same time, local area merchants on Ocean, West Portal, Taraval, Noriega, Judah, Geary, California, and Clement all contributed to decorating the street light poles and/or MUNI wires with festive holiday décor—red and silver wreaths, bells, holly, etc. The West Portal façade of Twin Peaks Tunnel was decked out to look like a fireplace with gigantic stockings, and everywhere, the mood was festive.
Golden Gate Park Nativity Scene—Each year we stopped at Lindley Meadow, just inside the 30th Avenue and Fulton Street entrance to the park, where there was a living nativity scene under the spotlights, complete with costumed characters, sheep, and many other barnyard animals. I really wanted to be a shepherd when I grew up, chasing after all those sheep. Our visits weren’t long, perhaps five minutes, but they created an indelible image in my memory as families stood huddled together in the crisp nighttime air.
Podesta Baldocchi on Grant Avenue—This was another regular destination that we would drive past slowly to ooh and ah the elaborately decorated floral shop, ablaze with thousands of small clear lights, decorated tree branches, and huge poinsettias.
The Emporium—This was where all of San Francisco shopped, for everything from a needle to an anchor, for a century from 1896 until its demise in 1995. Riding the L-Taraval downtown during Christmas vacation, the car would be packed from Forest Hill Station on, and then it immediately emptied out upon reaching Powell Street, and everyone walked directly into the Emporium. For many years in the 1950s and early 1960s, the store’s holiday display windows contained model trains controlled by a flat on/off button on the window—early high tech.
The White House—A long-time San Francisco store, renowned for quality goods and excellent service. They even closed on summer Saturdays so that the staff could spend time with their families. Sadly, the going-out-of-business sale took place in January 1965. Today, the outer walls of the building still stand, though the interior has long-since been gutted to accommodate a parking garage. For those old enough to recall the store, it is truly eerie to drive through there, envisioning what once was.
I. Magnin—For years, this store had an exclusive contract to sell the Estée Lauder cosmetic line in San Francisco. Each year, beginning when I was in high school, I would faithfully troop down there to buy Mom her annual box of dusting powder in the iconic light blue box. With marble walls, Lalique crystal chandeliers, and those elegant ladies running the elevators (all with matching strawberry blonde hair and stylish beige suits), the store was the height of elegance until its closure in 1994.
See’s Candy—Both of my grandmothers hated boxed “drug store candy” and they shared that disdain with all of us, so the only place to go for a nice box of chocolates was either See’s or Shaw’s. Until the late 1950s, there was a See’s outlet at 242 West Portal Avenue, along with other western neighborhoods locations—Stonestown, Irving, Geary, and Clement—and it was a great place to pick up those last-minute gifts and get that classic “free piece.”
Discount Stores—Way out there on Sloat Boulevard, near 34th Avenue, GETs (Government Employees Together) was a discount store that gradually took over nearly the entire Lakeshore Plaza Shopping Center, while a veritable twin was USE—United Shoppers Exclusive—over on Alemany Boulevard. These were my parents’ favorite places for buying toys and holiday supplies, though prior to that, there was the Crystal Palace Market, a cavernous old building at 8th & Market Streets that was a bargain hunter’s paradise. More than 100 individual merchants were gathered under that single massive roof, staffing counter after counter, section after section, and selling everything from groceries and deli items to nuts, tobacco products, holiday decorations, home accessories, toiletries, pet supplies, major appliances, and more, with plenty of free parking out in the back lot facing Mission Street. Crystal Palace was demolished in August 1959. (Crystal Palace on San Francisco Public Library History Center site.)
Unlike some families today that go into serious debt with holiday gifting, our family and all the others we knew were extremely practical Christmas and Hanukkah gift-givers. Many items were essentials, but they took on special meaning when wrapped in festive paper and tied with ribbon, while the gift ideas being promoted today—a new car, electronics, major appliances—were absolutely unthinkable!
Until my early teens, we did our gift-giving on the morning of December 25, but by the time I was in high school, like many other families with semi-adult kids, ours made the switch to opening presents on Christmas Eve. This made it easier on everyone, since my St. Ignatius classmates and I could congregate at Midnight Mass on the Hilltop and then sleep late the next morning. Like our Jewish friends who celebrated multiple nights of Hanukkah, our family always spread Christmas over the entire week, right up until New Year’s Day and beyond, knowing that some cousins or family friends would likely be dropping by to exchange greetings and gifts. Mom wore her Christmas tree pin every single day, and Dad was always prepared with a tray of highball glasses, a stack of paper cocktail napkins, and a good supply of ice for serving a bit of cheer to all the grownups.
Just for Kids—We progressed from blankies, stuffed animals, and toys, to books and records, and then on to bicycles, board games, electric trains, and sporting equipment as we grew progressively older. By high school years, most families in the neighborhood began turning to gift certificates for clothing stores (Bruce Bary for teen boys and Joseph Magnin for teen girls) plus the ever-perfect gift of money.
Toiletries—Once Mom declared her allegiance to one brand of dusting powder, the rest of that company’s products, such as cologne and bath soaps, proved to be good gift ideas, too. As a counterpart to Mom’s cosmetic gifts, Dad always received a bottle of Old Spice aftershave, though after 1965 or so, he updated himself to the somewhat trendier Aqua Velva brand. Meanwhile, both grandmothers enjoyed receiving the latest shade of fire-engine-red fingernail polish, straight from the counters of Vicente Variety or Woolworth’s.
Tobacco—Just what were we thinking?? Pre-wrapped cartons of Kool menthol cigarettes, ten packs to a carton, had Dad’s name on them year after year, and when my grandfather was alive, there was always a can of his sweet-smelling Prince Albert pipe tobacco wrapped and tucked lovingly under the tree.
Magazines—Aunts/uncles received a magazine subscription always being sold by us.
Handmade—Grandma sewed new aprons for her daughters and daughters-in-law and made new bedspreads with matching drapes for all seven grandchildren, while sons and sons-in-law received argyle socks. There was never any surprise to these items, since measurements were being taken and verified all throughout the Fall.
Baked Goods—Aunt Margaret always baked loaves of her special banana bread for everyone, foil-wrapped and tied with big red bows. Our old family friend, Martha, another baking whiz, delivered a large flat box of her homemade Christmas cookies to us every year. Nestled amid the layers of waxed paper were row upon row of at least a dozen different varieties—snickerdoodles, gingersnaps, lemon drop, anise, jelly thumbprint, oatmeal-raisin, peppermint, spritz, brownies, and frosted cutouts of Christmas trees, snowmen, and striped candy canes. Mom’s home-made Nuts & Bolts (recipe below), were packed into empty mayonnaise and jelly jars that she had washed out and saved all year long, foil-wrapped and ready as gifts for the neighbors.
Just for Teachers—Those poor nuns…With 50 kids in each class at St. Cecilia’s in the 1950s and 1960s, many Moms would send Sister a nicely gift-wrapped handkerchief for Christmas. The convent laundry room must have had 1,000 or more hankies to wash and iron, just so that Sister could always have an extra clean one tucked up her sleeve for those classroom emergencies.
December was always a busy month, and we were on the go, particularly after the start of school vacation. The following were a couple of our regular dining-out spots.
Woolworth—For many of us, our first experience with meals on the go came at one of the three Woolworth lunch counters, then located on the ground floor and basement levels of the Flood Building at Powell and Market streets. This was a favorite spot for thousands of holiday shoppers who just needed to get off their feet for a few minutes. For less than $1, tip included, lunch was the best greasy hot dog in the world, with chips and a Coke (served in a cylindrical paper cone cup mounted in a plastic holder).
Polo’s—Once a year in December, Aunt Margaret would meet us after work in front of the Flood Building where her office was located, and we would then walk up to Mason Street for an Italian dinner in the dark, clubby atmosphere of Polo’s (gone since the turn of the millennium), and then on to an evening of shopping at J.C. Penney’s, before riding the streetcar home through the dizzying brightness of all those wonderful theaters that lined Market Street between Fifth and Tenth streets.
Hot House—The “Night of the Lighting” on 18th Avenue was a highly anticipated event held on the second Saturday of each December. Santa would arrive by fire engine from Station 49, just up the hill on 18th Avenue near Rivera, and then take his “throne” in the garage entrance of one of the homes, listening to wishes, and passing out candy canes. Most of our neighbors held an open house that night, and Mom always decided that she was not about to try cooking dinner in the midst of getting ready for company—aunts, uncles, cousins, and old family friends. So, along with Grandma and a few others, we usually headed off to the Hot House at Playland—one of the best places ever for Mexican food. As we came out of that steamy fragrant restaurant into the crisp and cold nighttime salt air, with the sounds of the seagulls and the nearby crowd at Playland ringing in our ears, there was the eager anticipation of a Christmas party at home and all the festivities to come over the next few weeks.
Blum’s—After a long day of pounding the pavement at Stonestown, there was nothing better than a Chicken Salad Sandwich on a Blum muffin (toasted English muffin) and a glass of chocolate milk. Located on the west side of the old mall, halfway between the Emporium and Butler Brothers (which later became City of Paris and then Bullock’s before re-emerging as Nordstrom), Blum’s was an oasis of comfort and service, with all those friendly older waitresses in their freshly starched pink uniforms. Be sure and save room for a slice of Coffee Crunch Cake for dessert!
Christmas Eve Dinner—By the time I was in high school Mom had grown accustomed to family and friends coming and going on Christmas Eve at different hours after having snacked all day at work and elsewhere. She then declared that dinner on Christmas Eve would consist only of the basics—a drink and some hors d’oeuvres while sitting in the living room, followed by opening presents, and then wrapped up with dessert and coffee at the dining room table. This remains an easy and practical tradition even today.
Christmas Day Brunch—Scrambled eggs, Polish sausage, toast, hot chocolate, plus Irish Coffee for grown-ups ever since Grandma first suggested it in the early 1960s.
Christmas Day Dinner—This was a copy of Thanksgiving dinner with roast turkey, but without nearly as many side dishes—just potatoes, gravy, a green vegetable, and cranberry sauce. The first course was always Ribbon Salad (recipe below), and apple pie for dessert. This was one of the few occasions when my parents ever served wine with dinner—always the unbearably sweet Christian Brothers’ Chateau LaSalle.
The Tree—A Christmas tree, front and center in the living room window was standard, though our family’s trees changed a bit in appearance over the years. Back in the late 1940s, my parents favored a flocked white tree, though after my arrival on the scene in 1951, they decided that a non-flocked artificial tree was easier. Only once, in 1959, did we ever have the then-ubiquitous aluminum tree (difficult to store, and always ending up looking a bit wrinkled and misshapen after the first year). Later, it was a one-piece white artificial five-footer, set on a low table. By 1969, my folks opted for an enormous green artificial monster more than seven feet tall, made up of dozens of individual branches that I, as a high school and college student, had to carefully insert one-by-one (probably my parents’ revenge on me for having had to assemble bicycles on Christmas Eve years earlier), and then it was finally back to a smaller tabletop real tree once Mom was in her 80s.
Decorations used to be a variety of ornaments that had been acquired over the years, but about 1976 or so, my parents decided that they liked the look of a green tree with plain gold glass balls (Dad’s old University of San Francisco colors) surrounded by tiny clear lights, and that became their standard forevermore. After a career in retail, where I acquired my own ornaments, one-by-one in a quarter-century of day-after-Christmas sales, my own Christmas trees—always green, both real and artificial—have always displayed an eclectic mix of one-of-everything decorations.
Nativity Scene—Like every Catholic family, the cardboard stable was set up under the tree, along with all the ceramic figurines acquired from Woolworth early in Mom and Dad’s marriage. Our family’s self-imposed house rules required that the Infant not be placed into the scene until Christmas Eve (always kept tucked away in a nearby drawer until then) and the three Wise Men be located some distance away, looking toward the Star, and although we moved them progressively closer, night by night, they were never actually in front of the scene until January 6th (an ecclesiastical excuse to persuade Mom to keep celebrating the tree up and the holiday season alive until then).
Candles—One year early in my parents’ marriage, the Mobil Oil Company had a holiday promotion involving give-away Christmas candles. Mom and Dad never burned these, and we always lined them up in a precise order on both sides of the mantel clock year after year. The six-inch tall figures included two singing angels, two choir boys with red cassocks, two choir boys with black cassocks, two smiling Santa Clauses, two top-hatted waving snowmen, two green Christmas trees with gold glitter, two red (faded to pink over the years) Christmas trees with silver glitter, and two baby fawns. On top of the coffee table, there would always be a large light-green bayberry candle burning, imparting a spicy sweetness throughout the whole house.
Christmas Cards—People really did send more holiday greetings back when postage was only three, four, or five cents. We had cards displayed on the mantel, cards hanging from a thin cord strung between the light sconces over the couch, cards piled up in a bowl on the coffee table. Mom loved hearing about her friends’ children and Dad looked forward to the latest news from all of his World War II Navy buddies. Even today, I appreciate Christmas cards and annual letters that update me on the lives of long-time friends, long-ago classmates and co-workers, as well as the more distant cousins. My own cards—invariably the three Wise Men for almost forty years now—include an annual update on my own life, while trying to avoid the worst of the clichés (“Uncle Harvey won third prize in the Kiwanis Club talent show”) that often creep into such narratives.
Back in the mid-1950s, Mom’s brother John introduced the concept of a gnarled piece of Manzanita wood as a dining room centerpiece. From each of the curving branches, miniature ornaments were hung—construction-paper snowflakes, tiny bows and glass beads, and little Styrofoam birds. Some families even used this as an Advent calendar, marking off the days before Christmas. Years later, a friend who was born and raised in Nicaragua told me that this was standard holiday décor when he was growing up.
In December of 1957, Parkside School Kindergarten teacher Thelma Beckerman helped all of us make a gift for our families. She passed out twenty-five tiny Dixie cups, each with a pine cone embedded into Plaster of Paris. We then used our own little hands to lovingly glue on dozens of tiny multi-colored glass beads before liberally dousing the whole thing with silver and gold glitter. This tiny piece of artwork became one of the regular accessory items in our family’s Nativity scene forever more.
When I was a fourth grader at St. Cecilia’s in 1961, we had a project in which we all cut a four-inch piece of green felt into the shape of a Christmas tree, and then carefully glued a pattern of sequins onto it, and attached a safety pin to the back. At the nine o’clock Mass on Christmas morning, you could easily spot all the mothers of fourth graders, since each one was proudly displaying a child’s handiwork on the lapel of her coat.
By January, Mom would always start gathering up all the Christmas cards. She then cut out the front scene with pinking shears, punched a hole, and added a piece of red string to make gift tags. Her final batch, produced about 1973-74, filled several shoe boxes, and lasted for decades. In 2001, her final Christmas, she was filling out one of those tags, and made the comment, “This box is almost empty, so we’re going to have to get busy after the first of the year and make some more of these,” to which I responded, knowing her prognosis, with my best dutiful-son smile and a silent nod.
And so it went each year, until the Coming of the Magi, the Feast of the Three Kings, Epiphany, 12th Night. One grandmother always recalled that when she was young, December 25th was a purely religious holiday, while January 6th—“Little Christmas” among many Irish—always marked her family’s gift-giving day. After that, the festivities were over, with the trimmings boxed and stored away for another year.
Regardless of our various traditions, though, throughout the decades, the unchanging message has always been plain and simple—Joy…Peace on Earth…Goodwill—then and now.
Ribbon Salad—From 18th Avenue neighbor Genevieve O’Callaghan, 1955
1 large can fruit cocktail
1 small package lemon Jell-O
1 small package raspberry Jell-O
1 small package lime Jell-O
3-ounces cream cheese
1 cup real mayonnaise
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup fruit cocktail liquid
Drain fruit cocktail, reserving the liquid. Place half the fruit in bottom of a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex dish, and cover with the raspberry Jell-O, prepared according to the package directions. Refrigerate until set. Meanwhile, prepare the lemon Jell-O by dissolving it in one cup of fruit cocktail liquid, heated to boiling. Add mayonnaise and cream cheese, and stir with whisk to remove lumps. Let cool, and pour this over the set first layer, and refrigerate. (This layer will set more quickly than the first.) After the second layer is set, place the remaining fruit cocktail on it, and cover with the lime Jell-O, prepared according to the package directions and allowed to cool. Chill until set. Serve with a bit of dressing (1 cup mayonnaise combined with ¼ cup fruit cocktail juice) spooned over each serving.
Nuts & Bolts—From a Spice Islands Company ad, 1956
1 standard size box Cheerios
1 standard size box Wheat Chex
1 standard size box Rice Chex
3 cups pretzel sticks
3 cups salted peanuts
1 Tblsp. Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning
1 Tblsp. Spice Islands Smoke Flavored Salt
1 tsp. Spice Islands Marjoram
1 tsp. Spice Islands Summer Savory
½ tsp. Spice Islands Garlic Powder
½ tsp. Spice Islands Onion Powder
⅛ tsp. Spice Islands Cayenne
¾ pound butter or margarine
In a large baking pan, carefully mix cereals, pretzels, and nuts. Hand pulverize Marjoram, Savory, blend with other seasonings. Cut butter in small chunks over entire surface. Dust lightly with half of the combined spices. Place in a 250° oven, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir during toasting period, being careful to keep the cereals whole. Add remaining spices when butter has melted. Stir at least 4 times. Store in an airtight container, but do not cover until mixture has cooled. (Note: The pretzel sticks are essential to the name of this recipe, but about 1969 or so, Mom noticed that these were constantly being left uneaten in the serving dish, and so she eliminated them completely, and no one ever complained.)
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Page launched 27 November 2011.