Guest post by R. Ballantine
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in downtown Newark. There’s a tree at the Robert Treat Hotel, one in Military Park as well… The reinforced steel kind, that doesn’t mind the car’s horn blow. And like every other year, I go through the same tribulations as my neighbors to get ready for the 25th, a home festooned in garlands and tinsel, a grocery list as tall as my tree, and a monthlong surrender to the musical whims of Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby on the radio and on streaming. But as I walked through Broad Street on my way home with presents and giftwrap in hand, I found myself longing for a memory that now has become a rose-tinted fantasy. The nostalgia of a time and a city that bejeweled itself in Christmas merriment, and streetscapes as alive as a postcard by Currier and Ives.
Long before capitalism began pushing sleigh bells and candy canes in the middle of September (so much for Halloween…), the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season succeeded the gastronomic bounty of Thanksgiving. And just before the turkey was served on that afternoon in November, we were gifted with a preview of what lay ahead in December, and yes Virginia… Santa Clause was coming to town. The big man with the bag descended the avenue with his sled and helpers in hand, in front of him was not Donner or Blitzen, but a miles long parade of colorful floats, resplendent brass bands, jugglers, dancers, mascots and celebrities. Hundreds of thousands of smiling locals and tourists from far and wide cheered from the curbside for the arrival on this wonderful jolly old man. But do not mistake this gaiety for that one that happens across the Hudson, this was Newark’s great parade: The Bamberger’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Local legend says that Bamberger’s Department Store began the parade in the early 1920s, and that it used to throw the best Thanksgiving Day Parade in the entire region. When Bamberger’s was sold to its rival ‘The Red Star’, Bamberger’s Parade Planning Department was moved across the river. So that the parade going down 6th Avenue would be superior to the one going down Market Street. That was not true, though some misremembering certainly helps with civic pride.
Newark’s Parade was introduced in 1931. Orchestrated by Red Star and Bamberger’s to boost our great department store’s presence during the holiday shopping season. And so, like a certain Herald Square Store, little Jackie and Jimmy could come down to Bamberger’s Newark to meet the real Santa Clause and ask for their heart’s desires from the man himself. But Bamberger’s Newark at Christmas time had competition for the hearts and minds of little Newarkers everywhere.
The Kresge-Newark Department Store could not claim to have the real Santa (This one was from the South Pole), but in 1948 they had something even better… for little boys and girls who dreamed of an atomic-powered, space faring future, they had the ultimate transportation system of tomorrow! The Santa Rocket Express. This suspended kiddie-scaled ‘train’ hung high above the second-floor toy department of Kresge. Little children zipped above their parents shopping below, the perfect opportunity to spy from up high whether mom is going to buy that Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle for you. I had one myself, I almost shot my eye out that Christmas.
For the upper crust of Newark, there was only one place you did your holiday shopping, and that was Hahne and Company. To be Garden State High Society and not shop at Hahne’s was regarded as gauche, unless you were one of those vulgar suburbanites who took the train to visit Sak’s across the River. Here was the store where the adults stopped to buy for their Christmas lists. When you needed to slip a sable underneath the tree, you went to Hahne’s… at least it was a reasonable gift to buy for your wife compared to the light blue 54’ convertible your secretary wants. Think of all the fellas they didn’t kiss if you checked off their Christmas list.
All this holiday shopping, such a hullabaloo for Newark families this time of year. Streets lined with colorfully decorated shopfronts, bakeries and candy shops dazzling children with swirling sugary delight. Christmas carolers singing at street corners, the tolling of bells from churches across the city celebrating the hymn of this joyous season, how could you not be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a city indulging in wondrous ringing merrily on high? To be fair, even the most festive of us could feel drained by this infectious energy. No matter, for a respite Newarkers could rest on one of the benches of Military Park to see the beautifully lit buildings around them. The Public Service Terminal was decorated for the occasion, with bright lights and festive murals to welcome exhausted shoppers back into the warmth of homebound trolleys after a cold December outing.
These are the memories that have been carried over from previous generations, they carry the childlike wonder for these urban places and symbols that make up the season. These symbols, however, did not represent the holidays, they were their byproducts. So why do we cling to these icons and this fantasy of holidays from long ago? Because we carry the spirit of togetherness, and the overcoming of adversity that was put upon the parents of the children who grew up clinging to these memories of Newark as adults. They clung to a memory of exuberance and bounty that was removed from the privations that preceded them.
They were years of hardship… The Great Depression dragged on for most of the 1930s, so many people had the rug pulled from under them that there seemed little reason to celebrate anything anymore. And then, World War 2, with millions of sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands sent off to fight evils which were antithetical to the spirit of the holiday season. Civic, religious, and corporate leaders knew that this malaise and fear of an uncertain future could further damage the morale of a community. Depression of the economic sense and the prospect of war could cripple a society spiritually and psychologically, inciting a depression of the human spirit for hope and unity.
And so came the parades, the lights, the carolers, and the merriment. It might not have been centrally planned, but the public and private sectors shared an understanding that by working in concert with one another, the holiday season could be used to bring back that confidence of better times yet to come, and the promise of a peaceful tomorrow to the citizens of this city. Not everyone could afford have a turkey for Christmas dinner, not everyone could afford new clothes let alone new toys for their kids, and some had their families severed to protect democracy and liberty abroad. But they could walk into a city that beamed a peaceful promise of a future where families were together again, of great feasts where no one slumbered hungry, and of children’s eyes aglow with the sight of toy land underneath the tree.
With the end of War and an economy firing at all cylinders, these men and women finally got to create the holidays that they were promised for their children. These parents gave them the idealized holiday that we now live with, with Newark’s Christmas past crystallized at this inflection point. It happened across the nation, it affected every city from Detroit to New Orleans, St. Louis to Los Angeles, and even our cross Hudson neighbor. It was this ultimate gift of a better world forged under the guise of mistletoe and holly that we are forever trying to live up to every month in December. We forget that it took this struggle and sacrifice for our holiday traditions to feel meaningful, without them, this season would read as nothing more than a commercial pander if not saccharine decadence… yes, I’m calling you decadent Mariah!
So this holiday season, as you decorate your tree, wrap your presents in ribbons and bows, and prepare your holiday dinner for the oven, remember that this is a season of hope, of promise, of love, and of peace. It is not about who can wear the ugliest sweaters, have the flashiest holiday lights, or the most instagramable decorations… these items are only the set dressing for building memories with those we cherish, and we don’t need them to wish our loved ones the hope of a better future. Even if you cannot afford much this holiday season, the only thing you really need is a good heart and a kind spirit to share with others. And with that, we will capture the holiday spirit of a city and of a community steeped in our fond memories of yesteryear.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, and a Happy New Year.