A Chicago Kind of Christmas – Childhood Favorites

Volunteer Santas, State and Randolph, 1960 (Chuckman Collection)


Although my family isn’t Christian, I was fortunate as a child to get presents for eight days of Hanukkah, visit Santa Claus at Marshall Field and Saks Fifth Avenue, eat lunch once at the Walnut Room with my mom, and enjoy the wonderful Christmas window displays on State Street. I grew up in Lincolnwood just east of the Edens Expressway – a few blocks from the famous Lincolnwood Towers with its magnificent Christmas displays. This holiday season, I’m sharing a few of my favorite memories and some wonderful nostalgic photos that embody the holiday spirit, Chicago style.


Picking Out Gifts From Sears Wish Books


As I mentioned in this old blog, my little sister Janet and I would spend hours picking out gifts from Sears Wish Books. Our parents always let us select one impressive toy for the first night of Hanukkah and a few small “stocking stuffer” gifts for the other seven nights. The one present that will always stand out is my first Thingmaker by Mattel – classic Creepy Crawlers.



Downtown Christmas Lights and Window Displays


My dad worked on North Michigan Avenue his entire career and as such, we spent a lot of time there. I would often go to his office and drive home with him in his white Porsche. I loved the classy white Christmas lights that illuminated the chic boulevard before it became an over-commercialized street. 

Of course, no Chicago Christmas blog would be complete without mentioning the great window displays on State Street, especially at Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott & Co. I remember one Christmas season my mom took me to an eye doctor appointment in the Pittsfield Building and the doctor dilated my eyes. I didn’t have any vision problems when I was young, so perhaps it was just a standard exam. After the appointment, my mom took me to the incredible toy department at Field’s and to see the window displays. I felt like Mr. Magoo because I could barely see anything. Luckily, I visited the window displays many other times when I could see clearly.


Couple Walking on North Michigan Avenue, 1970s (Postcard, Chuckman Collection)

Marshall Field’s Christmas Memories (Image Capture: YouTube, Electropickle)

Model Paulette Breen with Xmas Hat, State and Randolph, 1970 (Chuckman Collection)

The Walnut Room at Marshall Field


I only ate here one time with my mom and I’m pretty certain I convinced her that we should wait in line to see Santa Claus after lunch. Although I still think the demise of Marshall Field was a travesty, I’m thankful Macy’s has retained this iconic room. 


Hoisting the Tree at Marshall Field, 1961


Lincolnwood Towers Christmas Lights


People used to come from far and wide to gawk at the awesome holiday lights in the Lincolnwood Towers. Shortly after my parents moved to Lincolnwood in 1959, apparently one family featured live reindeer in their display. More recently, somebody displayed a huge Star of David in blue and white lights for Hanukkah. We used to get into traffic jams just to see the lights. When I was about 9 or 10, a woman hit my dad’s car hard from behind – thankfully we were less than a block from a friend’s house so we went inside and called the Lincolnwood Police. I never saw any live animals, but have enjoyed some incredible displays over the years, including these oft-photographed houses (the first is at 6601 N. LeRoy). 



Picking Out Colorful Hanukkah Candles


An artist since I was old enough to pick up a crayon, what mattered the most to me was making certain my mom bought a box of Hanukkah candles that included an assortment of bright colors (the khaki green pictured below was my least favorite). When it was my turn to pick out the candles, I always selected the most colorful assortment – this was years before I studied color theory! I also enjoyed playing dreidel, getting chocolate gelt (coins), and listening to my dad’s unique version of the story of Hanukkah.



Watching Corny Animated Shorts


These unbelievably crude animations were classics on Chicago’s WGN-TV and they still air them today around the holidays. Hardrock, Coco and Joe — The Three Little Dwarfs is a 1951 short, stop motion animated cartoon that first aired in the Chicago market December 18, 1956 on Garfield Goose and Friends. Suzy Snowflake is a companion short featuring Norma Zimmer as Suzy’s voice and The Norman Luboff Choir singing the vocals. 



Photo sources: ChicagoNow, Chicago Tribune, Chuckman’s Collection, Class Chicago Magazine, Eric Bronsky, Etsy, Marshall Field’s Archives, WendyCity, WishbookWeb, WTTW, Yelp, YouTube


  1. Thanks for that story Betsy. Great to read, especially these days. I remember the times in December too, however, we used to celebrate Sinterklaas instead of Santa Claus. Probably you know this because of your Dutch roots, but let me explain.

    When I was a kid, December 5 was and still is the celebration of Sinterklaas. The story is that he is a bishop on a white horse, and with his Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) he takes the presents to the children. With this feast your parents could either ask (and pay) for Sinterklaas to visit, or they could choose for ‘stoeltje zetten’. Translated this is to set a chair. The next morning your presents would then be on ‘your’ chair.

    The past 10 to 20 years, things have changed. We never heard of Black Friday, Valentine’s day, Halloween and such, but gradually these are coming into our life as well. There were no lit Christmas gardens here, no shops selling Christmas stuff before or after Christmas, but nowadays people start building Christmas gardens in August already!

    Most people here celebrate Sinterklaas with his helpers, the Black Peters. Christmas was celebrated, but without presents, or one only. As our population changes, a lot of people are ‘aware’ of things nowadays. For one, there are groups that think Black Peter is a racist thing, and more and more you see colored or even white Peters. The ‘fun’ thing is that little children are not aware of this, and they are just interested in getting presents! Like everything, things sure change.

    To end my comment with joy I would like to tell you my wife and I do not have kids (we like them, but we just choose not to have them). So we do not really celebrate Sinterklaas, but we DO set up a Christmas tree every year. This year we decided not to…we just got two kittens see, and I built them a ‘scratch-pole’ last week, which reaches to the ceiling (pity I can’t post pictures). This is a sort of ‘living’ Christmas tree on it’s own…big fun! Merry Christmas to you.

    • Vrolijk kerstfeest, Kees and thanks for sharing your holiday traditions! I loved the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition of gifting large solid chocolate letters. Although I will be divorced from my Dutch husband 25 years in April and lived there in the early 1980s, I still love several Dutch treats. Among these are stroopwafels, drop (licorice), and Dutch pannekoeken.

  2. Meryl Goldberg

    We moved to Lincolnwood in 1955 from the west side of Chicago because my father had opened a hardware store in Edgebrook called Edgebrook Hardware. It was incredible reading your memories because they are my memories. My grandmother lived on Lake Shore Drive and every Christmas holiday I would spend the night with her and we would have lunch in the Walnut Room and then browse the toy department. Then we would walk along State Street and look at all the windows.

    My Dad sold Christmas decorations and lights in his store and most of them ended up adorning the homes of Lincolnwood Towers and Terrace. My favorite memory as a child is working in my dad’s store every Christmas. My job was testing the light strings to make sure they all worked. We also sold toys in the store at Christmas. What was left over, my cousins and I usually got as presents on Christmas Eve. Thanks for reminding me of such wonderful memories.

    • Hi Meryl:

      Thanks for your feedback and glad this brought back nearly the same fond memories as mine. My grandparents also lived on Lake Shore Drive, but never took us downtown – they did take us to Lockwood Castle once! I remember you and your dad’s Edgebrook Hardware from my Lincolnwood blogs.

  3. I remember that The Towers had a kind of hallowed reputation, as the place where the rich people lived. There were some fine “Georgian” houses along Longmeadow, but there were also early examples of McMansions – very enlongated, white stone ranches with circular driveways or white stone houses with decorative iron balconies. My mom would always characterize The Towers as “dead” because “nobody is ever outside.” That was when “normal” American life meant kids playing ball, riding bikes. There was always an old tale about “The Towers” being restricted (no Jews) just like Kenilworth and a thousand other places. To see the names that reside in The Towers now is kind of delicious irony – the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Greeks, the Jews, the Arabs, all the ethnicities who allegedly hate each other all live in peaceful garishness in the Lincolnwood Towers.

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