Department Store Santas…


Downtown Birmingham was in it’s heyday in the 1950’s. Department Store Window displays were veritable Winter Wonderlands, with electric trains running through magical routes, mechanical elves and snowmen- moved and twirled. Cotton Batting sprinkled with glitter mimicked the real snow of New York City- a favorite destination for wealthy Alabamians, who brought us, not only the wonder of Christmas Shopping but also Department Store Santas.image

The Shriners were already bringing the Barnum/ Bailey Circus to town and started their own Clown Units for Parades. The Shriners also brought a Carnival to Birmingham with the big amusement park rides for adults and kids alike. You would see the Shriners in their red fezzes with black tassles and most sported big gold rings with the Shriners insignia. I know this because our daddy was a  Shriner at Zamora Temple which is still active today.

  • I was afraid of the carnival rides,
  • I was afraid of the circus clowns and-
  • I was afraid of visiting the Department Store Santa at Loveman’s, as you can see in the photograph.

Birmingham was beautifully decked out for Christmas, Joy Young’s Chinese restaurant was a magical place with the little paper umbrellas in our sweet tea glasses, Italian Restaurants, Greek Restaurants and even a sort of speakeasy style restaurant called Dale’s Hideaway was an event; the Russell Stover Candy Shop was a place to press your nose against the cool glass window, the Ritz, the Lyric and the Alabama Theaters were amazing- and the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at the Alabama Theater was already legendary. And high atop Red Mountain watching over all of us, was the original Ironman- Vulcan.Vulcan_statue_Birmingham_AL_2008_snow_retouchedFamous Hotels like the Tutwiler even had floral bars off the lobby where my grandmother worked from time to time, Woolworth’s Department Store had a lunch counter and bargain basement which were all the rage, Pizitz had a mezzanine with a real elevator operator who said, ‘Going up! or Going down!’ as he turned the big crank and Burger Phillips had glass cases of fur coats- I know these cases inside and out because I got locked in one of them, hiding among the sneezy furs. My mother searched high and low trying to find me until a sales clerk saw a tiny hand inside the glass case!  My track record wasn’t too good with Department Stores. To be honest, the whole Santa Claus thing was sort of frightening- I mean, a man dressed in a red suit, with reindeer landing on the roof and entering our house through our pristine fireplace which was for show but real, and then a big man that shook like a bowl of jelly either left a lump of coal or shiny new toys- dependent on whether or not my sister and I had been good or bad was scary, not to mention those mice that may or may not be in the house! But to actually go see Santa Claus in person and have to ask him di-rectly for presents, well that put me over the edge. Enter my sister who was dressed in a matching sailor coat and tam, but who was infinitely wiser and fearless, stood behind me in line prodding me along. I whispered I was afraid. She told me to stop being afraid. We were almost up to the front of the line, when she got exasperated with my whining and said- ‘Look, he’s not the real Santa Claus! He’s got on spats instead of real boots and he has on a Shrine Ring!’ That settled it, I went through with it, but to be honest? I was still worried to death about the whole thing.

Every Christmas of my childhood, somehow the magic happened…we got Shirley Temple dolls, another year a baby doll named Tiny Tears who worried me to death with wet diapers and another year a Chatty Cathy arrived with a ring on her neck you could pull and she would talk. Talk, Talk, Talk- until my real sister Cathy pulled the string one time too fast and Chatty Cathy was mute from then on…There is not another picture of me with Santa Claus, I suspect the whole thing wore my poor Momma out- or it could be that it was too hard to schedule; not only was the Santa that day a Shriner, he was a famous Radio Personality named Dave Campbell and on alternate days, the Department Store Santa was my Uncle Ellis!

Now, you know that most Southern stories are part truth, part myth and part outright lies- this sad tale, I am sorry to say is the truth, the whole truth- it’s too close to Christmas to risk being naughty!

Love y’all, Camellia

All black and white photographs are from my personal collection and should not be used without permission. Who would want to? The photograph of Vulcan is from Wikipedia and may be subject to copyright.