The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay — The Magic of the Christmas Store Window

“Every Christmas window at Simpsons had a puffing train that wound its way around the window and disappeared into a tunnel and moments later came out the other side. It stopped at the little wooden station and you could see the conductor holding a big pocket watch.”
"The window was a work of patience and craftsmanship with meticulous attention to detail. I felt I could stare at that window for hours, in all weathers." Photo: Allen McGregor

This essay originally aired on ​December 18, 2011.

There seemed to be more snow then, banked high at the street corners and down lanes. And the snow seemed whiter then, and stayed longer. Of course when you're very small, a snowbank of any size can look mountainous.

It must have been colder then because people wore heavier clothes, or so it seemed, and piled them on ... sweaters, heavy overcoats, scarves wrapped two or three times around the neck, hats with earflaps or toques, heavy mittens. And calf-high galoshes with snap fasteners. Do they even make galoshes any more? If you were really little it was sometimes impossible to walk with all the clothes. If you fell down or into a snowbank, someone big ... a dreaded grown-up ... would have to haul you out.

The rituals of Christmas usually started with the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade around the first of December. The best seat for the best view of the parade was usually atop your father's shoulders, hands tucked under his chin. The trick was to wait and wait and wait in the cold for the last float in the hope that Santa Claus from his lofty perch would wave at you, a special private wave.

"There seemed to be more snow then, banked high at the street corners and down lanes." (Associated Press)

Next there were the Christmas pageants at school. The memory is fuzzy now but I can remember playing Joseph in the school Christmas play. My wife Mary was a nine year old named Diane who had golden pigtails. I was crazy about her.

For some reason, I spent most of the play lying prone, stage front in the school assembly hall. Perhaps Joseph was exhausted from all the walking and that business with the innkeeper. But Christmas did not become a real possibility, something that might actually happen, until my parents took me downtown to see the window.

The window was at the corner of the Simpson's department store. It was truly magic. And I imagine every city in the country that had a major department store had a similar window. These were moving vibrant tableaux, usually of a small snow-covered village, usually in the Alps, with shops and houses and clock towers, snowy hills and sleighs pulled by tiny horses and Meccano set machines with whirly things and tiny people.

There was the baker and his wife, a throng of elves, a jolly fat policeman, maybe a lamplighter. Every Christmas window at Simpson's had a puffing train that wound its way around the window and disappeared into a tunnel and moments later came out the other side. It stopped at the little wooden station and you could see the conductor holding a big pocket watch.

The window was a work of patience and craftsmanship with meticulous attention to detail. I felt I could stare at that window for hours, in all weathers. 

In the mid-1960s when I was all grown up and living in England, I spent a Christmas with some friends at a cottage in the Cotswolds, outside London.

On Christmas Eve, after the choral service at the local church, we repaired to the village pub. The pub was small, brightly lit, smoky with a crackling fire place. And it was jammed.

One of the local gentry had ridden his horse to the pub and tethered it to a post outside in the crisp darkness.

For a split second I thought of Simpson's, and looked at these village folk as incarnated denizens of the window.

Was that the soldier on horseback over there? Was that the baker and his wife, and over there, the jolly fat policeman? Indeed, was that the very train conductor with the big pocket watch.

I was 11 again, my nose pressed against the window, and all the world was cold and bright.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.

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