Every year I'm happy to live in a city that feels like Christmas. I should say "finally."
I grew up with an image of what the holidays were supposed to look like, from Christmas specials on TV and old black and white movies about people walking along sidewalks, stopping in little shops, saying hello to strangers. Real-life Christmas was mainly about driving around and around in a suburban parking lot, looking for a space. Then dashing into a store and maybe buying one thing, maybe not, but then getting back into the car to get back into angry traffic and drive around and around another parking lot. It was exhausting, and the little bits of Christmas music in the stores didn't do much to alleviate that.
I liked the ideal of a downtown Christmas. So for years I tried to force it by doing some token shopping downtown. Of course, when people like to say downtown was "dead," it was never truly dead. On Market Square, Watson's was open, the salvage shop successfully disguised as a stylish department store, and nowhere was more Christmassy, or more welcome to an impoverished shopper. The Bistro could seem warm and cheerful, and downtown's churches all hosted Christmas events throughout the dark years. Harold's Deli was open throughout that time, and if a Jewish kosher deli doesn't seem a place to find the holiday spirit, you obviously didn't know Harold and his wife Addie, who hosted the warmest place in town, and served eggnog, with something a little special for their best customers.
But to get to all those places, 25 or 30 years ago, you had to walk past empty, boarded up buildings, down mostly empty sidewalks. Worse, some of downtown's vacancy seemed self-inflicted. At night and on weekends, the only times I was free to shop, most of downtown's stores were closed. The idea, I was told, was that downtown retail was aimed mainly at commuters.
Now, behold. Downtown Knoxville could be a Christmas card. You could shoot a Frank Capra movie on Market Square.
It was once like that.
A lot of what we have now has historical resonance. A century ago, Mast General Store was known as Newcomer's, and it was a department store, too, that carried a lot of the same sorts of things--toys, clothes, kitchenware. Urban Outfitters was once Arnstein's, which sold trendy upscale clothing. The Bijou was once famous for its holiday shows, festive even when they were bizarre. The saloons of the Bowery, echoed by the bars of the Old City, were always packed during the holidays. And Market Square, where most people bought their Christmas trees and wreaths and garlands, was always a place for Christmas shopping. Peter Kern, celebrated with his own speakeasy, was arguably Knoxville's most effective promoter of Christmas, during the Victorian era, when it was still a new concept to most Tennesseans.
Everybody came to Market Square, and there they saw everybody else. They found what they expected, and what they didn't. It was always a place for surprises, like the German butcher who built his tannenbaum of 17 different kinds of sausages.
Market Square at Christmastime could even enthrall cynical reporters. My favorite description of the square comes from Christmastime. "Market Square is the most democratic place on earth," wrote a reporter for the Journal & Tribune in late December, 1900. "There the rich and the poor, the black and the white, jostle each other in perfect equality."
I've been down there several times this month, with the shoppers and the skaters and the gawkers, the people who grew up with Market Square and the people who never saw it until that afternoon. The people lined up by the hundreds to get into a Christmas show at the Tennessee, the people jamming the restaurants with friends and family, the people just ambling around taking it all in.
It's still the city that enthralled that reporter in 1900. I hope it always will be. Merry Christmas.