How They Celebrated Xmas in Old San Francisco
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
Forced against my better judgment to go to Union Square the other day, I was mentally comparing the current iteration of holiday cheer to the one I loved best. That was, of course, when I was a kid. Kids love Christmas, but then it’s not their credit cards that get maxed. They don’t throw the parties. They get presents and there are all those sweets lying around. Of course they love it.
Christmas really meant something when I was a child. The memory of World War II was still alive for people’s families, who had fought in the trenches for half a decade. In the misery of war, soldiers thought longingly of being home for the holidays, surrounded by the people they loved.
About 60 million people died in World War II, and over 400,000 of them were Americans. When the fighting was finally over, and the soldiers came home to the emotional warfare at family holiday gatherings, everyone was hell-bent on making up for Christmases lost. It was a big deal, and probably the start of the rampant consumerism that now brings us abominations like Black Friday.
Union Square was ground zero for his kind of thing. Department stores competed to have the most fabulous windows, the best Santa Claus, the best decorations. Macy’s usually scored high on window displays, but the most Christmas-y of all the Union Square merchants was The City of Paris.
Underneath the incredibly hideous shell of the Nieman-Marcus store downtown is the old City of Paris, the first department store in the city. It began with the ship, La Ville de Paris, sailing into San Francisco harbor soon after the gold rush. Miners made fortunes but had nothing to spend them on. Hearing about this in Europe, the Verdier brothers came to San Francisco with a ship full of luxury items and the intention of opening a store. However, the Verdiers sold out completely before they even got a location, and they went back home for more merchandise.
After a few smaller San Francisco locations, the family opened the Union Square store in 1907. That beautiful stained glass ceiling in Nieman-Marcus was part of that old store, and the atrium held a 40-foot tall Christmas tree every year then, as it does now. But the best part of the holiday merchandising was in the basement, in Normandy Lane.
Foodies are nothing new in San Francisco. Eating has become fetishized in recent decades, but it has always been a big deal. Normandy Lane was the city’s first foodie emporium, which specialized in French wines, pastries, chocolates, and food. It was laid out like the narrow streets of old Paris, with funky awnings hanging over each area, making it look like a succession of small retail shops. When the holidays rolled around, Normandy Lane produced unbelievable quantities of the best and most beautiful imported Christmas goodies imaginable.
My own Italian family made their own holiday foodie extravagances, so we didn’t really need to buy any more. Regardless, my mother and I went to Normandy Lane every year anyway for the sheer sumptuousness of the experience, and to buy a dozen chocolate ornaments, wrapped in colorful foil, to hang among the ornaments on the tree. They got eaten, rather than stored for the next year, when we’d go back to get some more. But then, one year, there was no more City of Paris, and no more Normandy Lane.
Visiting Europe as an adult during the holiday season, I’ve been reminded of Normandy Lane when walking through the urban Christmas markets in the public squares of every town. Like Normandy Lane once did, they offer seasonal treats and decorations, things that make the holidays brighter and sweeter.
Walking through our own downtown square in the season, you are reminded of the American obsession with driving sales and spending money, which gladden the hearts of retailers. And while our city is richer than it has been since the gold rush, it still has the same tired stars decorating Market Street that have been up for several years now, a sure sign that the last generation that cared about Christmas is long gone.