Our memories of Christmastime are a big part of what makes this season so special.
Christmas always brings a feeling of nostalgia. It’s a time of year when we find it easier to remember what it felt like to be a kid. The anticipation, the mystery and magic, the joy – it can all come rushing back – if we let it.
For many Baby-Boomers who grew up in the Green Bay area, the Christmas window display at the Prange’s Department store downtown is a memory that stands out. My mom is one of those people…
The animated, mechanical characters and colorful scenes inside the window were exactly like something you’d see in a holiday movie set in the ’60s. It was a community gathering place, and each year the unveiling signaled the start of the Christmas season.
My mom would bring up the display often when I was young. That’s because she has a memento, which cemented the experience in her memory, a yellowed newspaper clipping of her and a neighborhood friend standing outside the window on December 20th, 1964.
That’s when a young Amy Kuschel took a city bus from the east-side of De Pere to downtown Green Bay so she could buy Christmas presents for her family. These days, not many parents (especially parents in De Pere) would allow their elementary-age kids to take a trip all alone like that.
I asked my mom to put down her own words about the Prange’s window and the experience of being a little girl going shopping downtown by herself. Lucky for us, she remembers it all quite vividly.
Amy Kuschel’s Green Bay Christmas Memory
“I took a walk down ‘Memory Lane’ recently, when my son asked me to look through my childhood memorabilia for a special Christmas newspaper photo taken of me when I was 9 years old in December of 1964 in front of Prange’s famous Christmas window.
I was very excited as my parents were allowing me to take the city bus by myself from De Pere to downtown Green Bay to shop for Christmas gifts. With about $10.00 in my wallet, I waited for the bus on the corner of Lebrun and Webster. My neighbor, Mary Johnsen, showed up at the bus stop too. We rode downtown together. I felt very grown up.
When we arrived at the bus stop by Prange’s Department Store, we hopped off and made a beeline to the animated characters that my family had gone to view every year just after Thanksgiving Day.
The magical kingdom of Santa’s Workshop always put me into the holiday spirit, as I gazed at each scenario that was so beautifully portrayed. This day was no different.
Mary and I were fixed on the mechanical wonders of Christmas when we were suddenly interrupted by a newspaper photographer from the Press-Gazette! He asked if we would pose for a photo in front of our beloved Prange’s window. We were thrilled!
So, my memory of that special Christmas shopping day went down into Green Bay history.
After such an exciting start to my shopping day, I went on to “shop” the stores of old downtown Green Bay. Most of my buying was done right at Prange’s in the Children’s Only Shop. There I chose a tie for my dad and handkerchiefs for my mom. A small toy was selected for my little sister Barbie and baby sister Mary.
I loved to walk down the snow covered sidewalks and pretend I was like the twenty-somethings going into Orange Blossom Jewelers, or Naus Dept. Store. Usually, I ended up at Woolworths Dime Store to finish off my shopping.
I distinctly remember laboring over what I would buy my two dear grandmas. I decided on the beautifully, dark blue bottled, “Evening in Paris” perfume. LOL. My grandmothers were kind enough to set the bottles out to display in their bathrooms.
A couple of hours later, I was tired and watched the time carefully in order not to miss the bus back to De Pere. I do not remember eating downtown. After all, I only had $10.00 to spend on all of my family’s Christmas gifts. That’s pretty good budgeting for an almost 10 year old!
My memories of Prange’s window does not stop there. When I was even younger, perhaps 4 or 5 years old, I recall Santa Claus seated in his big chair in a front window further down the sidewalk at Prange’s too! Families could watch and listen to little boys and girls climb on Santa’s lap and whisper their Christmas wishes to him with the background of the Toy Dept. behind him. There was a speaker which brought the voices outside.
In fact, one year when I worked up enough courage, I climbed up on his lap too, but was so shy I don’t recollect what I asked for. Perhaps it was a Chatty Cathy doll!
There is nothing like Christmas through the eyes of wonderment in a child.”
Reliving the Experience as a Grandma
Plenty of things have changed in the past 49 years. But there are certain things about Christmas that will always be the same.
The way kids see the season with “wonderment” is absolutely one of those things.
My family witnessed that firsthand when we took my Mom (aka Grandma) to the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay to relive her memories along with her four grandkids. That’s where a collection of the mechanical figures from the original Prange’s window have been carefully restored and put on display.
You might think that kids today would be less-than-impressed with the things that entertained their grandparents. My 4 year-old son, Max, is always asking for our phones so he can play Angry Birds. And he’s better at it than I am.
Just about everything in our playroom lights up and makes noises. If it doesn’t, my two year-old, Milo, will assume the toy must need new batteries.
Despite all that, there was no doubt that these classic characters captured the boys’ attentions. When we watched them peering through the glass into the displays, I felt certain the looks on their faces must have been the same on the faces of boys and girls 50 years ago.
The Neville has done a lot to recreate the memories of downtown Green Bay during the holidays. In addition to restoring mechanical figures from the famous window, the museum also has a Children Only Store where kids can go and pick out $3 presents all by themselves.
You’ll also meet Bruce the Spruce – a friendly talking Christmas Tree who was yet another part of the Prange’s holiday experience. My mom stopped and talked with Bruce for a bit. Thanks to a little help from my brother, Bruce the Spruce seemed to remember Mom asking for that Chatty Cathy doll. (See the vintage commercial below)
In the early ’90s, Prange’s Department Stores were bought up by a big corporation and turned into Younkers and Boston Stores. But the Wisconsin-based chain left a lasting legacy that had nothing to do with Black Friday deals or holiday marketing campaigns.
It was a bitterly cold night when we all left the museum. But nobody seemed to mind trudging through the snowy parking lot to our cars. The joy of the season and the opportunity for three generations to connect with something kept us warm and put smiles on our faces.
Photo Gallery from The Neville Public Museum Exhibit
(Click on an image to enter a full-screen slideshow)
The exhibit Holiday Memories of Downtown Green Bay is open now through January 10th, 2015. Find out more – including dates for Bruce the Spruce and the Children’s Shop on the Neville Public Museum’s website.