Children peeked around mother's coattails for a better look. Little kids climbed on father's shoulders so they could see. Grownups formed an uneven line from one end of the building to the other. It was Thanksgiving night and it seemed everybody in town was on First Avenue waiting for the unveiling of Kirven's Christmas displays.
The show windows had been draped for weeks, adding to the holiday mystique. When the store closed for Thanksgiving on Wednesday, there was not a hint of Christmas to be found. After eating their share of turkey and pumpkin pie, family members and employees decorated the entire store.
But the main event was outside.
"Those windows were joyful and exciting. Of all of the things my Daddy did for people, they brought the most joy," said Hal Kirven, remembering J. DuPont Kirven's decision to decorate the store's First Avenue windows in 1948.
When the curtains were pulled away, people gasped. Decorations were colorful and festive. Animated figures moved in sync to the rhythm of Christmas music. Every window was different and every one was impressive.
A tradition was born that generations of local residents still talk about with glee when the Ghost of Christmas Past pays them a visit. Those displays were part of an era before there were malls, before Sunday shopping and before people used something called a computer to buy presents.
Fifty years ago, it was a different Columbus.
"Downtown was where you met people. You knew everybody on the sidewalks and the sidewalks were jammed, coming and going," said Billy Winn, a native son and retired journalist.
People had smiles on their faces, even if they didn't have money to spend, he said.
"You'd go down just to window shop. I used to spend hours walking around Western Auto, then we'd eat at the Krystal or the Orange Bowl," Winn recalled.
Sandra Doolittle has written about those days on her local history blog. After church on Sunday, she would get in the car with family and friends and head for Broadway.
"Window shopping was where you parked the car and got out and walked," she wrote. "If you were lucky enough you could park on Broadway and not have to put money in the meter. You got out and looked into the windows of Kress's, Newberrys, Silvers and Woolworths. You could see what you wanted and come back and buy it next week for there was no shopping on Sundays," Doolittle recalled.
Ron Feinberg grew up in 1960s Columbus and now lives in Atlanta. He hasn't lived here in more than 30 years but like Doolittle his memories are vivid.
"Downtown was the heart of the city. The malls had not yet taken over. When you went down there you had to drive round and round the block to find a place to park. I still remember the chilly times we spent waiting on the Christmas Parade. There were lots of floats and there were high schools bands from Columbus, Jordan, Baker and Central. It was a big deal," Feinberg said.
Until merchants fled for the new shopping centers, there were plenty of places to shop.
There was Sears, Montgomery Ward, Davidson's, Metcalf's, Chancellors, Kayser-Lillienthal, Kiralfy's, Miller-Taylor Shoes and a wide assortment of what used to be known as five and dime stores.
But most memories begin with Kirven's, a local shopping Mecca for 111 years. Founded in 1876, in its heyday it stretched across three streets -- Broadway, 12th Street and First
Avenue. It covered 70,000 square feet over four floors and a basement.
It was a downtown landmark until it opened its first branch store at Columbus Square Mall in 1979. With the shopping center in decline, Kirven's closed its doors for good in 1993.
"Remember that movie, 'A Christmas Story,' that comes on every year? That's the one where the little boy wants a B-B gun for Christmas. He goes to a department store and asks Santa Claus for one. That was Kirven's," Feinberg said.
Little Ralphie never really shopped at Kirven's but other children did, visiting Santa on the mezzanine where they could ride a monorail that took them on a trip around the store.
More than anything else there were those windows on First Avenue as Doolittle poetically described.
"We would stare at the Christmas trees, moving trains, dolls and wagons and listen to the
Christmas music. There would be people standing from the windows back to the curb.
Those who were in the back visited with one another until the ones in the front finished looking and made room for them. It was always worth the wait," she wrote.
Hal Kirven said his father got the idea for the showcases at a meeting of the International
Retail Syndicate, an organization that brought together representatives of locally owned department stores. J. DuPont Kirven also got the first displays from the syndicate.
"I don't know whether he bought them new or whether they had been used by other stores but I'm sure he was enticed by the joy they brought to him," said Hal, who was a year old when the first windows were displayed at Kirven's.
The holiday windows were downtown fixtures until the store moved in March of 1987. Twice the displays were changed out over the years. By the time Kirven's left for the mall the novelty was waning and shoppers were jaded.
Even then, Hal Kirven wishes the location at Columbus Square had contained windows. Several years, the store put up the old displays inside the mall but the magic was lost.
When Kirven's closed, the store was able to sell the animated figures back to the syndicate.
Christmas in Columbus is not so centrally located today. Santa sets up business in shopping centers all over town. People no longer shop in stores clustered together downtown and gifts are bought from Amazon.com instead of Kirven's.
Downtown has morphed into Uptown and instead of excited shoppers the sidewalks are filled with students on their way to class at Columbus State University. Many of those students now live in apartments above the stores where people once shopped.
But descriptions of Christmases past and those department store windows still bring a twinkle to the eyes of people of certain generations.
"They were joyful and fascinating," Hal Kirven said. "The movement and activity brought the child out of every person, whatever their age."
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.