December 20, 2011

Advent Calendar: Christmas Shopping at Lazarus

When I think back to Christmas shopping as a child, it’s not the actual shopping I remember—it’s the store. And, as anyone who grew up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1960’s could attest, the store for Christmas dreams was Lazarus.

The downtown F & R Lazarus store was an elegant giant—six floors of glittering merchandise, plus an annex, two basements, and a parking garage. A series of huge display windows along High St. enticed shoppers year-round, but in December they became magical animated windows. Elaborate scenes of moving characters carried a story line through each window, so you had to look at them in order. I can’t remember what the actual stories they portrayed were. What I do remember are the crowds of people around the windows, Christmas music piping through the cold air, jostling for position so I could see clearly, and the sheer enchantment of the little moving figures and animals.

Once I could finally peel myself away from the windows, we entered through revolving doors into a retail Christmas wonderland. High ceilings and brilliant chandeliers revealed an elegantly decorated shopper’s paradise. If I remember correctly, the first floor offered men’s clothing, jewelry, and makeup counters. Escalators beckoned to the floors above, which held women’s clothing, shoes, bedding and linens, housewares, and furniture. My favorite was the sixth floor, home to children’s clothing and, of course, toys. There was even a pet department.

At Christmas time, the sixth floor was transformed into Santa Land. You could be whisked up to it (relatively speaking) in an ancient-looking elevator from the first floor, where one of Santa’s Helpers operated the metal cage door and pushed the button for you. The door opened onto an awe-inspiring scene. Mr. Tree, a life-size talking tree, stood at the entrance. As a character from the local TV show Luci’s Toyshop, he was familiar to most of us and drew a big crowd. A painted red footpath led from Mr. Tree to Santa Land, where elves, penguins, snowmen, and reindeer watched as we children snaked through a winding line toward Santa. I felt both excited and nervous as we got near the front of the line and one of Santa’s Helpers waved us forward. Would I remember what I wanted to ask for?

My brother and I with Santa
After sitting on Santa’s lap, we each got a candy cane and were released into toyland. Talk about paradise! The scary part was over and now we could check out the stuff of our dreams first hand. Lazarus had the most toys I had ever seen in one place. I found even more things to add to my list—could I go back and tell Santa? Eventually my mother pried us out of there and down the escalators, passing one bustling floor after another.

During the holidays, Lazarus offered a Secret Gift Shop in one of the basements or annexes where children could enter through a special child-sized door and shop for inexpensive gifts for their parents. Friendly attendants helped us pick out things and count our money. Finally it was time to go home, clutching our little bags, our heads spinning with all we had seen. From the car windows as we drove away we could see the giant tree glistening on top of the Lazarus building, formed by lights stretched over the store’s “L” rooftop landmark.

Sweet stuff, these memories of Lazarus and Christmas past.

(The Geneabloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories encourages bloggers to share their memories of Christmas seasons past and present. To participate, see the list of daily topics. To read posts from a number of participating bloggers, click here.)

Postcard, F & R Lazarus in the 1950’s, author’s collection


  1. Oooh, Shelley, I just saw this post and had to stop everything and read it! I remember Lazarus from when I was a kid, visiting my grandparents in Columbus! It was magical to go downtown and shop--or even walk through and look. The magic kept holding on to me even when an adult. My last time there, I think, was in the early 1990s...our last Christmas with my grandmother after my daughter was our one and only 4 generation family photo...and on the way in to the store from the parking lot in the snow, my husband grabbed me and planted a holiday kiss on me. Unbeknownst to me, the local TV station's cameraman was taking a shot of the snow for the evening news...such fun memories. And to think there isn't even a Lazarus in Columbus anymore!

    Fun memories! Thanks for the post.

  2. What a great story, Jacqi! Four generations, falling snow, a holiday kiss, and the brightly lit store--that's the stuff magic is made of. Glad to know my post brought back good memories for you. Thanks for sharing!

  3. What a joy! You captured the same anticipation we felt visiting Macy's or FAO Schwartz in New York City. Mother used to tell us they were museums - places to look at beautiful things.

    Merry Christmas!!

  4. How beautifully you described your experiences at Lazarus. I just heard yesterday that there's a new book coming about about the store and its history. I don't know how many photos it will have but surely it will have a chapter on the Christmas windows and toyland.

  5. Dorene, thanks so much for your kind words. Merry Christmas!

    Susan, the museum analogy is wonderful. I'm sure the anticipation of visiting FAO Schwartz had to be huge! Merry Christmas to you, too!

  6. Thanks, Nancy. I just learned about that book too- it sounds like it will be a fun read. Do you think it's too late to put it on my Christmas wish list?

  7. Shelley, the shopkeeper where I work thinks it may be available at Barnes & Noble. There are still a few more shopping days, so no, I don't think it's too late. (And I heard they are working on a sequel.)

  8. remember the tree?

    1. Oh wow, I didn't know the Lazarus Mr. Tree has his own Facebook page now! What fun. Guess I'm not the only nostalgic one :-) Thanks for reading and letting us know about it, and hope you stop by again.

  9. Looks like an amazing store! We had nothing to compare when I was small.


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