The Holidays Were Really Special at Woolworth's

Christmastime is so rich with memories. It seems to get truer with each passing year. Family traditions, TV shows that capture the joy of the season, and a winter sky’s promise of a December snowfall add to the nostalgia. One of my favorite Christmas pasts was found in downtown Fulton.

For years, my family’s holiday shopping tradition took place on Christmas Eve, when Dad loaded us kids in the old Ford. (There were four kids in our family and that meant at least one of us was going to be denied a window seat.) While Mom stayed back at home to finish up last minute decorating, wrapping and cooking, Dad was in charge of our shopping and he knew just where to take us.

Back when I grew up, in the 1960s, going to Woolworth’s was a lot like today’s children going to the Destiny Mall. We lived on Chase Road, a couple miles outside Fulton’s city limits, and going to its downtown was a big deal. Dad would park the car on Cayuga Street, as close to the main doors of Woolworth’s as he could. Looking out our car windows, I saw the whole street decorated for the holidays.

Music was playing outside on what was known as The Dizzy Block and I first heard many of my favorite Christmas songs standing on the street as we prepared to start shopping. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Frosty, the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and some guy named Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” were all first heard on those shopping trips.

After enjoying a carol or two, it was time to get down to business. Before we walked through the double doors of Woolworth’s, Dad handed each of us a ten dollar bill. For a moment, I felt so rich, but that didn’t last long. I had to make that ten dollars cover presents for our family and grandparents. Finally, I had a reason to be glad I paid attention during math class.

There was no reason to worry about Dad’s allotment of ten dollars covering my many purchases. Woolworth’s was a “You can find anything” store, each aisle like its own department. Wooden bins were lined up in long rows, each one featuring a different item: clothes, school essentials, arts & crafts supplies, sporting goods, and so on. They even had a pet department with aquariums full of exotic fish. When I got a little tired of shopping, I’d stare into those aquariums for hours, watching the tropical fish and imagining myself on a Pacific island.

Woolworth’s also had its own little restaurant. Well, it was actually a lunch counter, but to a kid it sure felt like a full-service dining establishment. I loved hopping onto one of their swivel seats at the counter and watching the cook grill hamburgers and hotdogs right in front of me. The waitress even made our sodas from scratch: she filled a tall glass with ice, added a squirt of special Coca Cola syrup and topped it off with bubbly water. It was magic!

If Dad was in a good mood – and he always was at Christmas – he’d buy us lunch, and if things were extra special, he’d let us top it off with a banana split. Dad might even have been able to save some money if it was his lucky day. If memory serves me right, banana splits cost 59 cents back in the 1960s, but Woolworth’s often had a contest going where you could significantly lower that price. Rising above the lunch counter was a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. If you ordered a banana split, you’d choose a balloon, pop it, and if there was a penny inside, you got the yummy dessert for just one cent.

Once lunch was over, each of us grabbed a shopping basket and spread out. There was no reason to worry that a brother or sister might spy on me as I shopped for them. The store was big enough that we could avoid each other, and if I ran into a sibling, I could dodge down another aisle and keep my secret gifts a secret.

I learned a lot about how to choose a present at Woolworth’s. The store had nifty reminders of which part of the store featured “Dad gifts” and which were better for Mom. A display of brightly-colored neckties gave me the idea  that Dad would love a new tie since he wore one to work every day. For Mom, I headed to the kitchen department, where a newfangled cooking gadget might make meal prep a little easier.

When it was time to concentrate on my siblings, I finally let myself head to the toy department. I’d avoided it as long as I could, knowing how easy it was for all those fun games to distract me. Shopping was serious business, after all. In my youngest years, Santa Claus, who was waiting to hear a child’s Christmas list, added to the excitement. Even after I finally outgrew his secret, just seeing him sitting in a corner of Woolworth’s really made my spirits bright.

Greeting cards were near Santa and I always made sure to use some of my ten dollars to buy one for Mom. She was the sentimental one in the family – I think I inherited that from her – and I knew that just the right Christmas message was as important to her as any gift I might find. After she passed away, packed among Mom’s most prized possessions were some of those Christmas cards purchased at Woolworth’s.

Today, I start my Christmas shopping in the weeks before the big holiday. I know which stores will have just the right present on my list and I can even shop while sitting at my computer. But once those famous Christmas songs start showing up on the radio, if I close my eyes and sing along, I feel like I’m still standing on a snowy Cayuga Street, ready to walk the aisles of Woolworth’s, determined to turn ten dollars into a Merry Christmas.

Woolworth's, in downtown Fulton, offered many rich Christmas memories.

Woolworth's, in downtown Fulton, offered many rich Christmas memories.