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When I think of Christmas in Baltimore, I think of Hutzler’s | COMMENTARY

For decades the go-to destination for Baltimore shoppers, the corner of Lexington and Howard streets was home to four department stores: Hecht's, Hochschild's, Hutzler's and Stewart's (pictured). For decades, no Christmas was complete without at least one shopping trip to this commercial nerve center. They're all gone now -- Hutzler's remained the longest, closing in 1989.
For decades the go-to destination for Baltimore shoppers, the corner of Lexington and Howard streets was home to four department stores: Hecht's, Hochschild's, Hutzler's and Stewart's (pictured). For decades, no Christmas was complete without at least one shopping trip to this commercial nerve center. They're all gone now -- Hutzler's remained the longest, closing in 1989. (William H. Mortimer, Baltimore Sun photo)

At this time of year, many of my memories surround Baltimore Christmases past. My parents moved us to Baltimore from Chicago in 1956. We first lived in an apartment, and in 1959 moved to a full row home, both were in Loch Raven Village.

For years, Christmas morning had a set-in-stone routine. We would get up, get dressed, make our beds, then come down the steps to head toward the kitchen. Only problem: walking down steps or in a straight line was made impossible by the blinding glare of the megawatt spotlights on the light bar attached to Dad’s 8 mm movie camera. He would always tell us to smile and open our eyes, but if we had, surely our retinas would have been burned to a crisp.

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When we finally stumbled into the kitchen, we were stuck there until breakfast was eaten, Mom and Dad had finished two cups of coffee each, and the breakfast table cleared. Only then were we allowed to finally enter the living room to see the tree and empty out our stockings, which always had some assorted unshelled nuts and one tangerine — very expensive and only available around Christmas in those days — in the toe.

Our second Christmas in Baltimore was a big job for Santa. He had to haul a new two-wheel bike with training wheels for me and a Lionel train set for my brother up our apartment stairs to put under the tree. This last gift was no doubt influenced by Dad’s co-workers. He came home one day to tell Mom that “people in Baltimore must really have green thumbs, even in December. They’ve invited us to come see their Christmas gardens!” Once his Mid-Western background had adjusted to include what a Baltimore “Christmas garden” actually was, we had one, too.

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Hutzler’s department store plays significantly in my Baltimore Christmas memories. One year, Mom and I took my visiting grandmother to Hutzler’s in Towson for some shopping. While Mom was busy elsewhere, “Mama Kay” and I went to the housewares department, where she talked the clerk into giving her a large empty box, even though she wasn’t buying anything. She also told me not to say anything to Mom about it, because it was a secret. I thought it was kind of strange to keep an empty box a secret, but all was revealed on Christmas morning. When Mom opened the box, inside was Mama Kay’s silver teapot, which had come down from my great-grandmother’s side of the family. I vividly remember Mom crying when she opened it. I still have the teapot today.

Mom and Dad would take us to see Santa at Hutzler’s every year. We would go at night when Dad got home from work. One year, my younger brother Chick and I were standing with Dad on the first floor near the entrance waiting for my mother who was off shopping, when a big man came and stood across from us. He was wearing a beautiful, full-length black cashmere coat and black leather gloves, and he seemed to be waiting, too. Dad bent down and told Chick to go shake the man’s hand. Chick was having none of it, so Dad took us both over to say hello and shake the man’s hand. He bent over, solemnly shook both our hands and wished us “Merry Christmas.” Dad seemed very excited about the encounter and spoke about it often, but it wasn’t until we were older that we realized the man had been all-time Baltimore Colts football great, Alan Ameche.

Hutzler’s, like many large department stores of that era, had toy departments totally decked out at Christmas. What a wonderland to behold! But there was somewhere else in the store that always drew me away from the toys and Santa. Many times, I would wander away from Mom while she was at one counter or another. But she always knew where to find me: I would be in the holiday decoration section, standing in front of the tree with the bubble lights, staring in open-mouthed awe, watching the bubbles boil up from the bottom of the light as if by magic.

To this day, this is my favorite memory of Hutzler’s and Christmas in Baltimore.

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Cynthia North (purplenorth.cno@gmail.com) is a retired teacher.

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