Every year that passes, the Christmas memories of our youth grow sweeter and more perfect. A 1965 photograph of holiday shopping at Higbee's or an original Atari 2600 box can momentarily transport us to times as treasured as they are impossible to revisit.
That's the emotional territory author Gail Ghetia Bellamy covers in Cleveland Christmas Memories (Gray & Co., $17.95). The photo-heavy, 120-page book not only documents the city's bygone retail traditions, but also steps inside our homes to look at how we celebrated the holidays.
In all, there are nearly 140 photos in the book, including a showcase of hot toys through the years and striking black and white photos of the long-gone pagentry of downtown during the holiday season.
"It's not pine-scented scatch-and-sniff, but they're still very evocative photos," says Bellamy. "[How we celebrated Christmas] was influenced by our neighborhoods, and our families and our ethnic heritage, but it also had a lot to do with the history of the city."
Bellamy kicks off the book by showcasing Clevelanders' annual pilgrimmage downtown to shop at the likes of Higbee's, Sterling-Linder, Halle's and May Co. The book's text leans heavily on memories Bellamy gathered from more than 100 Clevelanders over the course of a year's worth of research.
"I got to be in the Christmas mood all year long," Bellamy says. "It was great for it to be really hot in July and you're talking to people about where they used to buy their Christmas tree or what toy they remember from when they were 7 years old."
But what resonates are the photographs of artifacts from Christmases past, be it a kid's shopping bag from the Higbee's Twigbee Shop, a WMMS advertisment with the FM rock station's iconic buzzard pulling the sleigh or Frankie Yankovic's 1964 album Christmas Party.
One of Bellamy's favorite photos in the book depicts the cardboard stove in which children's meals were served at Higbee's Silver Grille, a reminder of her own childhood trips downtown.
"I thought it was really exciting getting that little stove lunch," Bellamy recalls. "They had these little tiny dishes. Things I ordinarily wouldn't go near, like tomato juice, all of sudden, when it was in this tiny glass, it tasted good."