"MY BEST Christmas memories are from a time when kids made fun from whatever they could find," Tucsonan Manny Herrera Jr. vividly remembers. "Imagination was the only toy."
"But Christmas of 1946 was my first Christmas home after the big war. What a wonderful feeling I had strolling down Congress Street and Stone Avenue and visiting the big Christmas tree that was traditional at Steinfeld's Department Store at Stone and Pennington."
Like many Tucsonans returning home from the war, Herrera hadn't been here in 1945, a year that saw a desperate shortage of men's shirts, underwear and pajamas on store shelves. By the next year, however, things were returning to normal. As Herrera recalls, "Tucson's main merchants (Steinfeld's, Jacome's, Levy's, Penney's, Ward's and others) were all concentrated downtown on Congress, Stone, Sixth Avenue and Pennington. My future wife, Josie, and I would stroll down these streets window-shopping and doing some shopping, but money was tight in those days. We would meet people we knew on every block because Tucson was still a small town.
"Commercialization of such a blessed holiday season was not as pronounced then as we see it today. Material items seem to be the main agenda for many people now, with the blessedness of this holiday season at the bottom of their agendas.
"Christmas Eve we would all go to midnight Mass, then to some relative's home for family unity. Tamales were the main feature at these big family celebrations."
Four years later, newlyweds Norman and Phyllis Salmon moved to Tucson, which then had a population of 45,000. His parents owned a dry goods store near Campbell and Grant, and for Christmas of 1950 the business advertised little girls' 100-percent wool coats for $3.33. They also had full-length ladies' coats for $7.77 and offered 20 percent off women's dress and casual shoes. But these items were the exception, Phyllis Salmon remembers. "In those days nobody had major sales before Christmas. That is when a store had to make its money."
That same holiday season, Steinfeld's was selling "genuine fur-trimmed leather slippers" for $2.99 and "gay, dashing, out-of-the-West style" men's hats for $10. At the suburban El Rancho Market located on Speedway east of Country Club Road, ham was 59 cents a pound, a 16-ounce can of cranberry sauce cost 17 cents, and 10 pounds of potatoes sold for 29 cents. A new car from Young Buick on north Stone could be purchased just in time for Christmas for $2,200.
To celebrate Hanukkah, the Salmons attended a dinner at Temple Emanu-El, with perhaps 75 or 100 other people. They used to know everyone in the congregation, Phyllis Salmon recalls, unlike now, when Tucson is so big.
Between Christmas and New Year's the entire family would go downtown to the Pioneer Hotel, where the elder Mr. Salmon liked the roast goose. His son remembers the hotel had a very nice dining room on the ground floor with a ballroom upstairs.
The Salmons also recollect that the Old Pueblo Club near Broadway and Stone would sponsor a Christmas party for children, but that the streets downtown had very few decorations. "Coming from New York in 1950," Phyllis Salmon chuckles, "nothing looked very fancy in Tucson during the holiday season."
But the Salmons remember Steinfeld's, as does Tucson native Felicia Sanders May, whose family often went downtown every night during December. The department store at Christmas time, she says, "was the most beautiful place for me as a child. It was a magic land with really wonderful life-size animated figures in all the windows, huge bows along the banisters of their curving stairway, and huge wreaths throughout the store. It was very beautiful and very elegant."
In the basement of Steinfeld's was a deli with a wonderful selection of hams and cheeses and foods you couldn't get other places. Sanders May also recalls shopping at Frau Kaiser's Broadway Village Market, which had an enormous array of German specialty foods and provided a unique holiday feeling.
To celebrate Christmas Eve, her family would spend a quiet evening at home, then arise the next morning to a wakeup call provided by the holiday music of Burl Ives on a 33-rpm record. They would attend services at St. Philips in the Hills, and Sanders May remembers the chicken farm that was across the street from the church and the smell of horses along the unpaved River Road, which the family followed back into the city.
Her family visited the Winterhaven display of Christmas lights in its early years in the '50s. Of outdoor home decorations in general she says, "It was not a big thing. When I was growing up you decorated the home inside, but practically nobody did much outside. Not like today, where homes are really, really done up."
In 1957, Sanders May attended the first Moonlight and Mistletoe Ball at downtown's Pioneer Hotel, which had a huge tree in the lobby. Presented by the Tri-Hi-Y primarily for returning college students, the dance featured Wayne Webb and his band. Two years later, the event had moved east out Broadway to El Conquistador Hotel, where Louie Leon and his orchestra played. "I remember they had a huge silver sleigh loaded with beautifully wrapped presents in the lobby of the hotel," she recalls. "It was always festive to go there, especially at Christmas"
Christmas of 1960 marked a turning point in Tucson's celebration of the holiday. Within a decade the city had more than quadrupled in population, and while Santa was still coming to Steinfeld's downtown, he was also stopping at Levy's new store at El Con, which had opened in November.
The eventual demolition of El Conquisitor Hotel to make room for an expanding shopping center left hard feelings. "We were all horrified. Everybody was angry when they tore down the hotel," Felicia Sanders May says. "But the shock was somewhat lightened because we were going to get a real shopping mall."
By 1970, several major department stores, including Jacome's, Penney's and Steinfeld's, still remained downtown. But in December of that year, a fire blazed through the Pioneer Hotel, killing 29 people, including Harold and Margaret Steinfeld. The holiday season in Tucson would never be the same again.