There are certain things that are just so Classic Cincinnati -- from uniquely holiday traditions to food to celebration. As a Tri-State native entertainment reporter Brian Mains loves either remembering or learning about everyone of them. That's why he decided to write a monthly column celebrating the Queen City's unique heritage and traditions. And what better way to kick off the series than with memories of holidays past, and those classic traditions that continue today?
My mom is 4 years old in the photo she hands me.
“Be careful with it,” she said before letting go of the image faded yellow with age. It is still in its original envelope with a handwritten note, “Debbie, Christmas 1958, 4 yrs old,” on its back.
She is sitting on Santa's lap in the photo. My grandmother is somewhere out of frame, watching her daughter tell Santa what she wants for Christmas moments before the camera shutter snaps.
The pair had rode the bus to Shillito’s department store at Seventh and Race streets, Downtown, from their home near Linden Grove Cemetery in Covington. My grandmother never learned to drive. Though department stores such as Coppin's on Madison Avenue were closer to home, Shillito's Christmas display, featuring elves, miniature villages and toys, was better than any other along the bus line, my mother said.
Many of us of a certain age who grew up in the Tri-State share collective family memories of classic Cincinnati holiday traditions – Downtown displays, model trains and small-town Christmas events that have spanned generations.
Those Magical Elves
My mom and grandmother brought me to the same Downtown Shillito’s nearly two decades later to see Santa and more than 130 animatronic stuffed elves and reindeer that lined the path to see him. I am certain there is a similar photo tucked away of me sitting on Santa's lap; I just don't know where it is.
What I do have are the memories. One of my earliest involves them taking me to see “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in 1983 before going to Shillito’s to gawk at the display.
Of course, my mother and I aren't the only people who cherished memories of those visits Downtown after Shillito's shuttered its display in the mid-1980s.
Theresa Herron, communications manager for the Clermont County Public Library, fondly recalled going to see the display in the 1960s with her mother and sister.
"It was something for us girls," Herron said. "My brothers stayed home with Dad. We didn’t buy anything; we just looked at the windows of Shillito’s and Pogue's. The highlight of the trips was that we always got something to drink or a pastry or something at the Shillito’s diner. My sister and I, since we were so little, we thought it was such a neat thing to eat inside of a department store."
Herron, like my mother, also has a memento from one of those visits; a tote bag her mother bought her at Shillito's with her initials stitched on it.
"It’s just a nice memory to me," she said nearly 50 years later.
A public Facebook page, Shillito's Christmas Display, dedicated to the defunct department store displays was also created a few years ago as a place for people to reminisce.
Holiday Traditions Closer to Home
Growing up in rural Independence, Kentucky, festivities included a ride with my father atop a fire engine each holiday season. Yes, firefighters would actually load children and parents onto the canvass of a working fire truck. We would take a short spin down Madison Pike after Santa Claus visited the old firehouse next to the Kenton County courthouse.
Due to a number of reasons (safety being one, I’m sure), the rides no longer happen. Instead, there is now an annual Christmas walk and tour that have made good memories for my 7-year-old nephew.
Another Northern Kentucky resident, Cam Miller, recalled the holiday experiences he shared with his mother while growing up in Covington in the 1970s and '80s.
"There was always something special about the holidays in our house," Miller recalled. "I am the oldest of four boys and once Thanksgiving came and went, the countdown to Christmas break began."
That countdown included a live Nativity scene displayed each year in Covington and holiday lights along Madison Avenue.
“When you went down Madison you entered this magical place,” said Miller, an amateur historian and videographer for the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. "They took Christmas so seriously.”
Miller, who now lives in Dayton, Kentucky, said his family's holiday traditions also included trips to Shillito's and visits with Santa at Kings Island's Winterfest before the amusement park discontinued the tradition in 1992.
One Tradition Continues, Full Steam Ahead
One holiday tradition mentioned by Miller, Herron, and fondly remembered by myself is celebrating its 70th year in the Tri-State.
The Duke Energy Holiday Trains display has entertained an estimated 9 million people since the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad gave it to the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co., where it was displayed at Fourth and Main streets Downtown starting in 1946. The display moved to the Cincinnati Museum Center in 2011.
“The best part to me is watching the kids’ eyes light up,” said Barry Hildebrandt, one of the volunteers who maintain the display at the Museum Center. “You see the excitement.”
That excitement was evident during a recent Sunday as Cincinnati native Mike Seta walked around the trains with his wife, Krista, and their three children, ages 3 to 9.
"We come here every single year," Seta said.
The tradition dates to his own childhood, he noted.
"It was part of the whole holiday Downtown experience," he said. "I'd go to Shillito's, Fountain Square, and then end the visit with my grandparents at the holiday trains. I think it's a link to the past, how something I did with my grandparents is something I can do with my kids."
As the children pulled him to another part of the display, the father said his family was visiting the display earlier than usual since his wife is expecting their fourth child before Christmas.
"We've come here for a long time and plan to continue," Krista Seta added.
I didn't fully appreciate the Setas or Hildebrandt's sentiment until a couple of years ago, when I saw my own nephew's eyes go wide as he stood on tiptoe to glimpse the display's trains and holiday landscape.
I saw in him the same excitement I had while seeing the same trains Downtown with my family as a child.
I invite anyone to share their own photos of family holiday and Cincinnati traditions at this historic photo sharing website, Historypin.org, where I have set up a collection, and view those already submitted below.