Fellow Book Benders
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    This is the 33rd edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco, the Russian River and beyond.  This month we take a detour from our planned return to Duncans Mills to wish everyone a happy New Year by revisiting some old San Francisco holiday traditions. For more info on my novels, please visit  All major credit cards accepted.  Free shipping and handling.  CHEERS!
         January, 2019                                     Vol. 4, No. 1
      Let’s take a trip back to Christmas in 1880’s San Francisco. It is interesting to note during this season of divisiveness that three quarters of the population of the City were first generation immigrants then. They brought some wonderful traditions that are still with us today. The influx of Irish changed the major holiday of the year from the Protestant promoted Thanksgiving to Christmas. The folks from Ireland, many of whom settled in what is now present-day Mission District, started the custom of putting out cookies and milk (or was it Baileys Irish Cream) for Santa on Christmas Eve. This was based on the practice of leaving the front door open so that Mary and Joseph could enter and find a beverage and sweet bread on their journey to Bethlehem.
     Germans settled in present-day Polk Gulch and are credited with the convention of decorating the Christmas tree (photo far left). Lit candles, small gifts and candied sweets adorned the fir branches. Soon thereafter, Woolworth’s sold German imported glass ornaments on the cheap. They also introduced the idea of stringing popcorn, edible nuts and gingerbread across the tree as well as adding tinsel (loaded with lead, of course).
       The English introduced the practice of kissing under the mistletoe. Those cheeky devils!  
        A typical day at Christmas in the City during the 1880s might have included a visit to the bedecked store window at Macy’s (photo near left) before having lunch at its popular diner. Next, your coachman would deliver you to San Bruno Mountain to cut a tree before returning to your abode along Broadway.      
        Sidebars: The Irish were the largest immigrant group to S.F. in the 1880's.  The Germans were the second largest while the English were the third.
hristmas Past during the middle of the last century in San Francisco usually started with the task of locating a parking place in the Union Square underground garage. Once successful, the family would climb hand-in-hand up and out of that gray asphalt hole to a magical fairyland. You took in the outfits of the other children and realized why your mother insisted on everyone wearing their “Sunday best". Dad wore his ugly Santa tie, mom her feathered hat with matching colored gloves, while you donned that Fauntleroy-like velvet suit with lace collar, hand-knitted by grandma. White lights illuminated the giant X’mas tree (near right photo), which stood proudly beside a 25-foot menorah.
        You skipped down a Union Square path lined with boxwood hedges and potted red poinsettias to the nearby storefronts of FAO Schwarz and Macy’s, agape at the wonder of the window displays (far upper right photo). Mechanical mannequins, gingerbread houses and the lit nose of Rudolph came alive as the story of a “Christmas Carol” unfolded in commercial splendor before your very eyes…and for your eyes alone.
        Next, you rushed past the ringing bell of a Salvation Army Santa to see the parade along Market Street (far lower right photo) as a sleigh or perhaps a vintage truck delivered the Man-of-the-Hour to the Emporium.
         Sidebar: The menorah in Union Square was first sponsored by Bill Graham in 1975.   
   Do you remember the Christmas parade rolling along Market Street in downtown San Francisco? As a tot, you were mesmerized as Santa slithered out of his sleigh and wobbled into the Emporium (far left photo). In a dash, you sped from the cable car turnaround across the street at Powell and rushed past sidewalk street artists and a good-news prophet who held up sandwich board that read: “Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great”.
       Once inside the seven-story neoclassic structure, the centuries old department store came alive with a self-promoting tune. An orchestra (upper left photo), situated on a spherical platform above a dining area, bellowed out the “Emporium March” to get your parents and grandma into the capitalistic mood. But grandma wouldn’t have it, complaining “what kind of Santa would be found south of Market?”
          The bearded man in question lurked ahead, greeting everyone under the glass dome on his way up the escalator. Once on the rooftop, it was easy to lose focus as giant candy canes, life-size toy soldiers, two merry-go-rounds, a Ferris wheel, a train and other distractions competed for your attention (lower left photo). Soon, however, you were back on track, pursuing your mission under the guidance of twenty elves when, without warning, a harangue rang through the crowd.
         Disheveled Santas, clad in cheap red suits started shouting unchild-like greetings. The gang of fifty faux Clauses flashed body parts at bystanders, drinking beer, smoking pot. But before hell could reign supreme, all was restored with the jingle of handcuffs and a stray complaint with a ho-this and a ho-that.
          The next day, you caught your father spill out a giggle under the disapproving glare of your mother as he read an article in the Chronicle titled: “Rowdy Santas Invade S.F. Stores.” And so another Christmas came and went in the year 1995, one year before the Emporium would close for good. 
         Sidebars: The Emporium was built in 1896.  The first escalator in S.F. was at this store in 1936.         
        Listening to the car radio, you eavesdropped on Happy Holly’s conversation with Santa and tracked the old man's movements as he dashed from the North Pole, soaring toward California. Without warning, Dad turned off the ignition, parked the station wagon and escorted everyone toward a magical toy store.
       You strolled a block from Union Square to Stockton and O’Farrell where a human toy soldier (far lower right photo), dressed in a tall purple hat, greeted you with a stiff wave before the family entered FAO Schwarz (near right photo). Oversized stuffed animals showed their stitched grins along with Humpty Dumpty who sat with an uncertain expression on a rung of a giant tower, which stretched to the second floor.
          A fixture back East since 1862, the store always showcased the latest thrill. On this day, you tap-danced across a replica of the walking piano featured in the Tom Hanks film Big (far upper right photo). Next, you checked out the price tag of a Barbie Foosball Table. Too many zeros to count at $25K. After unloading from the escalator, your eyes went wide at the sight of the Muppet Whatnot Workshop. You joined the other kids and assembled your very own cloth creature with specialized facial features, hairpieces and outfits.
          On the way out, you sugar-upped in grand style. As you sat in the backseat on your way home, the tinny voice of Happy Holly reappeared, melding with dreams of sugarplums and candied bears and fudge and jawbreakers.
           Sidebars: FAO Schwarz has been in S.F. since the late 1960s.  It closed in 2003.
       Kathy Beck remembers when she and her mom went every year at Christmas.  "She always bought me a corsage from one of the flower vendors and we would stroll around looking at the beautiful holiday window displays. A wonderful memory."

         The family left Union Square and entered City of Paris (near left photo) on Stockton Street. I was awestruck at the sight of a forty-foot Christmas tree (upper left photo). Actual bicycles, skis, sleds and other gifts decorated the monstrous fir, which rose to the stained glass dome (lower left photo). I squinted upwards and spied the outline of an old sailing ship within the ornate skylight. Dad explained that the vessel was the City of Paris and had arrived during the Gold Rush days laden with French wine and Cognac and frilly things for the ladies.
         We strolled down an aisle named Normandy Lane. A make-believe village soon engulfed us. A well-groomed gentleman, wearing a white carnation in his lapel, stood behind a bar, which resembled a red lacquered bed.  Mom, with a tsk-tsk to dad, nudged everyone along to a red, white and blue kiosk displaying children’s books and French magazines.
           Across the avenue, there was a watch repair shop as well as a counter to buy rare stamps.  Mom lingered at an exotic cigarette booth while Dad ambled away without us. Mom’s explanation for his departure was a smack of her lips followed by a nod toward the lingerie section where he would receive a glass of champagne and pretend to be interested in acquiring some nylons for her. She confessed that during the Big War this was the place to come to have your legs “painted” as nylons were unavailable in the forties.
         Sidebars: City of Paris was built in San Francisco in 1850.  Its first Christmas tree was erected in 1909 to celebrate the store’s survival of the earthquake three years previous.  The store would close for good in 1976 before opening a few years later as Neiman Marcus.  The new enterprise preserved the glass dome.  If you look closing under the artist's rendition of the old sailing ship, you can spy its motto, which reads: Fluctuat nec Mergitur-"It floats but never sinks".  So true!

            Started in the 1940s, it was a San Francisco tradition on New Year’s Eve for office workers to hurl the pages of old calendars from windows in the Financial District (photos on the right) . The artificial dusting blanketed Market Street in a white drift a foot deep, bringing a Tahoe-like scene to the asphalt canyons. It was a special treat for city kids who may never have played in the snow, or in autumn leaves for that matter.
          Herb Caen once wrote that he would stroll downtown and witness “…a custom observed nowhere else.” Later he would add that throwing the entire calendar, as a whole, out the window would be “bad form” as someone might bring in the New Year with a terrible migraine, or worse.
             It was estimated that approximately thirty thousand pounds of paper were tossed out high-rises in the 1970s with a cleanup cost at around $6,000. New construction now seals the windows of tall buildings, making it virtually impossible to create the mess of yesteryear.  Humbug!  
           Sidebars:  Frank Dunnigan recalls: "About 1974 or so, someone began saving all the "hole punches" from the entire year (amounting to nearly a dozen record storage boxes), which was added to all the paper calendars being tossed out the windows. Some of that stuff lingered until it was washed away by the first rains of the new year."

NEXT TIME we will revisit Duncans Mills Part II along the Russian River. Take care and stay out of trouble (if you can remember how). 

Reviews for Don't Stop the Music:
        “For those who remember the era (Summer of Love), Don't Stop the Music is a delicious summary of memory.”
         San Francisco Museum and Historical Society
        "John McCarty has put together a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love (1967) that is cheerful and entertaining and even pays tribute to the beauty of west Sonoma County..."
          Sonoma County Historical Society

          “A trip back in time to the 1960’s San Francisco Fillmore District, up through the Marin & Sonoma coastline to the Russian River hippie heyday and the peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.  A nostalgic read.”
            Russian River Historical Society

            "Somehow McCarty manages to build sympathy for his motley crew as they embark on a classic road trip from San Francisco to rural northern California."
            Northern California Fulbright Association

         "Familiar folks, home-grown scenery, and candid attitudes will put you happily in the middle of all the action."
            Stephen Gross, The Press Democrat

           "All along there is danger, excitement, budding love and a number of unrighteous brawls.  The author knows what he writes about.”

            Bob Jones, Sonoma West Times & News

Attributions & Asides:
       A special thank you is due to anonymous subscribers for sharing their memories of  San Francisco holiday traditions of the past.   Also, a note of appreciation goes to the following individuals and organizations: Kathy Beck, Frank Dunnigan, Robin Monroe (website designer), The Press Democrat, Card Cow Vintage Postcards, Sonoma County Historical Society, Russian River Historical Society, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and Wikipedia.
                To subscribe a friend to this newsletter go to and scroll to the bottom of any page to "Subscribe To Our Newsletter".
                 Your privacy is important to me.  Be assured that I am not sharing your email or any other personal information. As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."   JMc
Copyright © 2019 John McCarty, All rights reserved.

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