Walk around the edge of Federal Hill on a 47-degree December night, and you see a city outlined in string after string of white lights.
It's an ideal winter picture: a boat or two in the harbor, maybe some ice-skaters circling on the newly reopened Rash Field rink. You might inhale a whiff of an oak log burning in a Montgomery Street fireplace.
But something's missing, something scores of Baltimoreans recall waiting for, watching and talking about: Where have those dazzling store windows gone? The kind that used to be present wherever a merchant was trying to sell a pair of roller skates or a Parker Brothers' game?
This is the season of Christmas rituals, of behavior that gets repeated every year. We all do things such as retrieving a beaten-up piece of paper with a recipe for nut-and-spice cake. Or inhaling the perfume of the fir trees at the 36th and Ednor Road side of old Memorial Stadium, where the veterans conduct their Christmas greens sale. Or thinking about the names on a card list, recalling old friends and good times.
Like so much at this sentimental and back-looking time of the year, recollections of those downtown store windows is perhaps brighter than their reality.
But I wouldn't bet on it.
Hearing again the deep-chested notes from the Laughing Santa or spotting the Littlest Angel just one more time would be reassuring on an annual visit to Howard and Lexington streets. (Whatever happened to the mechanically animated displays of Santa's workshop where the elves never stopped chopping wood and the reindeer perpetually nodded?)
My preference for window-shopping in downtown Baltimore was at night on a cold December evening. The stores were open, and plenty of people were out, but no one was pressured to buy anything. You were just there to look, to take in the free show, to see the newest, brightest and best merchandise.
Such a December night was for dreams, hopes, and very pretty things. In a way it was theater, this combination of windows and activities and people watching -- and at the same time, being part of the show.
The changing windows, year-to-year, always had some hits and flops, stars and props, and return engagements. Some windows took 10 minutes of watching just to catch all the detail of 30 little figures moving about on clockwork motors. Others were dull and stupid.
But for the most part, you knew the decorators and display people had worked weeks on this, their best effort of the year. It showed.
December's downtown thrills had some other dimensions and locales, too.
Consider the kilowatts behind the neon and flashing bulbs on the marquees of the Hippodrome, Town, Century, New, Stanley and Keith's theaters.
Brilliant light-shows exploded on the facades of the Bond and the Wonder clothes stores.
The neon Greyhound dog paced along at Howard and Centre. Camden Station flashed "GO - B&O.;"
Whether in the heart of the city's retailing district or on its edges, almost every retailer seemed to give the season its best shot -- Hochschild Kohn, Stewart's, Hutzler's, Brager's, May Company, the Hub, Julius Gutman, Lycett's and O'Neill's. The 5-and-10s, too.
Sometimes, even the drug stores were not Scrooges in the Christmas-window competition. I recall a plate-glass panel at the Read's, Howard and Lexington, the local chain perhaps best known for its straight-forward promotion of milk of magnesia.
But the one Read's window that stands out after the passing of 40 years was a sales tribute to the Honeymoon Express, a 98-cent wind-up toy that was just the sort of thing a chain drug store would carry.
When its key was turned, the little train circled around a landscape of tin mountains and lithographed valleys. It may have not been a really great toy, but it sure looked that way under a spotlight and with an appreciative sidewalk audience.