Once upon a time, downtown Miami was THE place to go for Christmas! I especially remember one Christmas, 1960. My parents, Mildred and Edmund Stahl, brother Matthew, age 12, sister Vickie, age 10 and myself, age 7, witnessed the streets transformed into a glorious fairyland!
We all dressed in our best dresses, suits and ties in anticipation of our trip to the city. Our first stop was the Miami Public Library, where my parents put on a puppet show. My father had designed the puppets and had painted the scenery and my mother served as puppeteer. Matthew and Vickie recited Christmas poetry they had learned by heart!
Night was falling when we exited the library, at Bayfront Park, where colorful floats were being prepared in advance for the King Orange New Year Jamboree Parade. But the REAL magic was in the shopping district. I felt like I was walking through streets of heaven!
Thousands of shoppers thronged Flagler Street, which was a constellation of Christmas stars, wreaths, lights and music. There were very few “Walk-Don’t Walk” lights; police directed cars and pedestrians, handing out candy canes to children. We visited McCrory’s, Kress, Woolworth’s, J Byron’s, and Richard’s Department Store, which had a basement, (something you don’t see often in Florida). This was mom’s favorite; they sold “irregulars,” slightly imperfect underwear, socks and pajamas at discount prices.
We proceeded on to our final stop, Burdine’s, where mom worked as a temporary employee, to earn Christmas money. We enjoyed a dinner of turkey and stuffing in the Burdine’s employee break room.
Mom then changed into her “Santa’s Elf” costume to assist with photography of children on Santa’s lap. While she worked, Matthew, Vickie and I accompanied Daddy up to Burdines “Carnival in the Sky” on their rooftop. The tamest ride was the merry-go-round, the most dizzying was the spinning top, but the most exciting (and frightening) was the roller-coaster. I was catapulted skyward! Biscayne Bay looked like a blanket of diamonds. The colorful red and green lights on the causeways resembled emeralds and rubies. But the rapid descent made me feel I was flying off of the roof! In fear for my life, I screamed until an attendant sympathetically stopped the roller coaster just for me. I then stayed on solid ground.
Our final stop was to visit Santa, where we posed for our photograph. Santa exclaimed, “Look at that display of toys and tell me what you want!” Confused, I explained “We don’t have a chimney.” He replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it to you. I’m magic.” I selected a Betsy Wetsy Doll, Matthew a microscope, and Vickie, a book of fairy tales. Before the age of reason, I guess I didn’t realize Santa told my mom what we wanted!
In the ensuing decades, downtown lost its glamour. The sidewalks were gray and cold, with abandoned storefronts. Sadly, the joyous shoppers were gone; now there were just grim-faced lawyers scurrying to Court.
And yet….I visited downtown recently, after a long absence. It seems new life is being breathed into what once seemed dead. New high-rise condominiums and office buildings are reaching high up into the sky. I saw many young people walking, jogging and congregating in outdoor cafes. It infuses me with the faith that someday, the magic of Christmas can return to downtown Miami!