Step into San Francisco’s Christmas past in the gallery of historic photos above.
Christmas is always wonderful in San Francisco, but when you look at photos and hear stories from decades past, the spectacle seems more grand and its sparkle more dazzling.
The holiday was special in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s: If you grew up in the city, you may remember driving along the Marina to see the lights on the boats and the houses and hearing the sound of carolers riding the cable cars down Hyde Street. And you will undoubtedly never forget the Christmas tree glistening in the stained-glass dome of the City of Paris, nor Emporium’s over-the-top fanfare.
“The Emporium used to do these rooftop carnivals for the kids, which seems like a lot of liability now but pretty magical for the kids,” said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project.
Meldahl has helped curate and preserve historic images of San Francisco for her nonprofit and the ones of Christmas display many long-gone traditions.
“The firehouses used to compete with one another with these fabulous decorations,” said Meldahl. “That was sad to see it go. Eighteenth Avenue was known was Christmas Tree Lane and today there’s no neighborhood that springs to mind that does a coordinated effort, but there are still some over-the-top displays.”
She added: “Christmas is still magical in San Francisco, but when we view what happened in the past through the lens of Kodachrome photographs from the past, there’s a wonderful nostalgia that comes alive.”
To bring alive that magic of Christmastime, we reached out to the San Francisco Remembered Facebook group and invited its 84,000 members to share their memories. The thread quickly grew to more than 250 comments and below we highlight many, showing Christmas was a really big deal in San Francisco.
The department stores celebrated with great fanfare and shopping was done in stores
“I was born in San Francisco in 1950. When I was little, we went to the City Of Paris. The huge tree in the middle of the store was magical and filled with toys, treats and sparkling ornaments. We walked each floor around the magnificent tree. We pointed to our objects of desire, there were unbelievable things like a Schwinn bicycle with a basket and a horn, huge stuffed animals, dolls all decked out in party dresses etc. For me it was the things of my dreams as we continued the long walks around till we reached the top. I think I was about 6 years old. She took us there every year. In a child’s eyes it was truly Magical!!!” —Melanie Davis
“You know this City was at the top of its game with that tree slowly turning at the City of Paris! San Francisco made such a statement to the world for retail style and elegant design at it’s best. What could top it? It’s engraved in my memory as the most enchanting store in the world. I was always so proud to have been born in a city with such talent and imaginative designers.” —Alberta Rivera
“At City of Paris when you were upstairs looking down, we felt like angels flying at the top of tree. Later Gump’s because they often did very romantic fairytale windows.” —Gayle McClure
“In the late 60’s and early 70’s, we always made our trek to see Santa on the roof of the Emporium, ride the little kiddie rides and then walk up to Geary on Union Square to see the I.Magnin window displays. A couple of years, as we got older, my grandma (a 1906 earthquake survivor) took us to have tea at the Palace Hotel.” —Erin-Kate Whitcomb
“I used to love to go downtown right after Thanksgiving and see all the decorations and especially the Emporium window animated decorations! The best part was how up on the rooftop of the Emporium was transformed into a Winter Wonderland with roof rides the entire Christmas break!! Some of the best memories I have!” —Marta RivasGlaze
“Walking between Macy’s and Emporium’s to see the window displays. Then going to the roof top of Emporium to ride the rides and watch the ice-skating show as we stood in line waiting to visit Santa and get our photos taken with him. —Tatiana Bilibin
“Walking up Powell Street with my mother to do some Christmas shopping. There was a blind man with a dog and a tin cup who was part of the scenery. I loved him for being part of the experience. My other always gave me change to put in his cup. Then we’d walk on Grant and see the Christmas tree and end up having hot chocolate-if the City of Paris had a place to sit down and order it up, then that’s where we settled in, cozy and rosy-cheeked from the chill. It was holiday magic at its best.” —Joyce Van Horn
“Women were all dressed up with hats and gloves! Women all dressed to nines just to ride a bus and shop! Even on the way to work it was a adventurous journey through the Christmas world of retail. The sights and sounds of the bustling city during the holidays. The smell of roasted nuts, the perfume counter, walking through Blum’s with it’s seasonal baked goods, Woolworth’s with its displays, the Cable Car ringing its bells, Union Square surrounded by stores, and finally Santa on the roof top with ice-skating shows, corn dogs, and cotton candy! Oh yes, l was a Santa’s Helper at 18. I spent my lunch break every day on the Ferris Wheel eating popcorn!” —Alberta Rivera
“I designed stores for Emporium (late 70s/early 80s).The kid’s department had a long, long aisle full of toys, and an incredible LEGO display during Christmas. Our office was on the roof above the dome, and there were so many visitors with memories of that roof at the Holidays. I remember a big party with Santa in the auditorium.” —Barbara Corff
“I remember the City of Paris had a life-size stuffed horse for sale and I wanted it so bad!” —Debra Dunwoody
“The original Cost Plus store in a old warehouse Fisherman’s Wharf was magical at Christmas in the early 1960s. So many beautiful and unusual decorations tucked into its nooks and crannies! My dad, a butcher who had his own shop near the Portola District, would take us there and buy a bunch of decorations while Mom distracted my sister and I (we were quite young). Then, every night for the week before Christmas while we slept he would put up new decorations around the house. We’d get up each morning eager to see what was added. By Christmas Day the house was bursting with color, overflowing with beautiful decorations of all kinds. He did this for a number of years and we just loved it.” —Janet Popesco Archibald
“In the 1970s there was a classic Christmas ornament store [Podesta Baldochi on Grant] that my Dad would take us for an ornament each year.” —Kiri Schultz
“Oh my goodness and shopping at The Akron and Cost Plus was the best ever ever ever.” —Dede Soulchild Martinez
“Going down to Market Street with Mom. We were always dressed up and Mom would buy our picture from the man who roamed Market. He would take our picture and then sell it to us.” —Maureen Francis
“Gump’s, Podesta & Baldocchi, the amazing windows of I. Magnin, Joseph Magnin, and Saks. This city has sadly lost what made Union Square so unique. But I still love my San Francisco.” —Gail Harootenian Kezerian
“For me, the San Francisco equivalent of a White Christmas was a Wet Christmas. I especially loved going to Union Square to see the window displays after it had rained, because back in the 1950s, lots of the sidewalks there had dark grey, sparkly pavement, and the lights from the windows reflecting on the wet, sparkly sidewalks created a magical effect.” —Deborah Brooks
The decorations were citywide
“Firehouses were decorated throughout the city and driving around from place to place was a delight. The welcome from firemen was always enormous.” —Sue Canavan
“The streets use to have decorations in the Mission, Market, West Portal and Irving Street that I remember in the 50s and early 60s. These declarations, would stretch across the streets.” —Robert Kerson
“Every Xmas my father would drive us up/down Bay Street (across Marina Greens) to see all the homes and their trees, lights and decorations. It must have been mandatory for homeowners to decorate the outside of their houses and almost all put their trees center-front in the picture windows. Boats and yachts docked across the street there would be lit up, too!” —Sandy Morimoto Dineen
“I was born and raised in the City. Moved from Jules to 40th Avenue in 1956 when I was 3. We’d pile into the car and drive around the Avenues looking at Christmas lights. ‘Candy Cane Lane’ was on 36th Avenue near Sloat. It seemed every house on that block was all lit up with Christmas lights. My dad was in the SFFD and all the fire houses would put up elaborate Christmas displays. They’d have competitions for the best one.” —Marilynn Lause
“We would drive to a cul-de-sac street off of Silver and enjoy the Christmas lights as we drove slowly while the radio played our favorite Christmas songs.” —Edith Espinosa Bray
“The fishermen at the Wharf used to decorate their boats with lights at Christmas. It was special and magical to this little girl in the 60’s.” —A’Delle Duggan-Laws
“Geary was decorated right after Thanksgiving. Can’t remember how far out, but from at least Arguello to 20th Avenue. Still had streetcar wires to hang decorations from ’til ’57 or so.” —Chuck Chinn
“In the 40s and 50s all the neighbored firehouses would have a Christmas-decorating contest. It was really special to drive around and see them.” —Larry Bain
“We drove from San Rafael and did the scenic tour of the Marina, looking at the beautiful trees in the bay windows. Then went to relatives homes either on Blake street or 33rd and Geary. Uncle was a chef and cooked up a phenomenal Italian Christmas dinner. Lots of fun with cousins!” —Vikki Jackson-Rinaldi
“I grew up in the city in the 50s and 60s we lived in the Richmond District and we would drive across the park, look at the big tree that was always decorated, drive through the Sunset District seeing the houses with decorations. Then we would arrive at my grandparents in the Noe Valley. My grandfather was a firefighter so we would go see fire houses that were decorated.” Sharon Fishel
Family traditions were started and kept alive
“The live nativity at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park was a highlight of my childhood Christmas memories. Each night the wise men and animals got closer to the manger. We stood on the drive looking down onto the Polo Fields. Christmas Eve was wonderful to see the wise men at the manger!” —Patty Sullivan Reynolds
“Grandma G took the cousins to either the SF Nutcracker or Holiday on Ice. First we stopped at one of the flower stalls to pin on our gardena corsage onto our coats.” —Roxie Kellam
“First and foremost, my parents drove us out the G.E.T., a government employees’ store where I think is now Lakeshore plaza now. We kids and cousins would play with the toys. Then magically, Santa got us those toys for Chrstmas.” —Charlene Fung Loen
“My Grandmother and I had a wonderful tradition. We would go to The White House to get my yearly coat, then to City of Paris to see the tree and walk each floor to see all the tree. Then to Macy’s to see Santa, then to Blum’s to have a real milkshake and hamburger (and she did not get mad if I did not finish). Sometimes we would hit Cable Car Clothiers just to get the tea and cookies after 3 p.m. So much fun, oh yes and Podesta’s on Maiden Lane. Every store was decorated and there were carol era at the end of Powell by the cable car. So miss it.” —Mardi Lasell Taubert
“Lived in Marin. Made a trip to the City every Christmas season. Saw the tree at City of Paris, explored Union Square, Maiden Lane. Always shopped at Cost Plus. On the way home drove through the Marina admiring the Christmas lights and trees in the big picture windows of the homes.” —Lisa Duerr Wild
“In the 70s, we would dress up in our tights and matching dresses and go downtown to the Emporium to see the tree and look at the lights around union Square. It was so festive and fun!” —Cindy Viola
“My aunt had this silver tree she would set up in the picture window, with this light that had revolving colored cellophane to change the color. This was high tech 1960’s.” —Gina Peru-Friccero
“I grew up in the City in the 70s. I did the normal things like going to the Emporium and FAO Schwarz downtown. I remember vaguely the City of Paris and then Neiman Marcus with the beautiful tree and Atrium. Podesto Baldachii’s was always a treat.I remember all the windows done up. They were just magical. I lived over by Saint Francis Wood’s and Lakeside. My friends and I went for a few years caroling in the neighborhoods. That was a lot of fun. We would get our tree from the tree lot on Sloat and 19th.” —K Sans Souci
Lunches and dinners out and treats were part of the festivities
“We would go see the big Christmas tree in the City of Paris, look at all the decorations in the city stores and finally have ice cream sundaes at Blums. I would have hot fudge and my cousin carmel. —Sharon Fishel
“Hot chocolate in shiny gold mugs at Kaiser Coffee Shop.” —Christie Keith
“Always went to the Emporium to see Santa and looked at the elaborate festive windows downtown. Finished off going to dinner at the Golden Spike in North beach with my sister and parents.” —Josie Romeo Walsh
“Since my father worked at the House of Prime Rib, we were treated to a delicious dinner more than once a year. And being visited by the owner with presents in tow. I remember the miniature cooking stove he gave me one year that was perfect for my Ginny doll. When my father worked at the Jack Tar Hotel, the annual employee Christmas party was full of good food and games enjoyed by all and at the end we could go home with one of the beautiful ornaments. With my boys we’d go to the Mark Hopkins for tea. And I recall as a young adult, after a day of shopping downtown I’d enjoy a delicious dinner at Jax’s.” —Edith Espinosa Bray
“In the 1950s it was going to Macy’s and Blums for ice cream sundaes. Then Chinatown, too! Our favorite restaurant was the Imperial Palace! We always wore gloves.” —Liz Hardy-Gross
“I remember very vividly taking the Greyhound into the City with my Gramma and looking at all the wonderful
window displays! I was given money to buy my Mom gifts from Woolworths. We ate at the lunch counter and had the time of our lives!” —Dede Soulchild Martinez
“Oh, and the crab on Christmas eve! I still do that now even though I live thousands of miles away. We have to have crab on Christmas Eve. I was at a market in Atlanta a few years ago buying my crab and standing next to me was a lady who also grew up in the City doing the same! We had both driven several hours just to get crab for the holiday. In Georgia.” —K Sans Souci
Amy Graff is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her at email@example.com.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Christmas-San-Francisco-historic-images-past-14927838.php.