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A Traditional Christmas Needs a Real Downtown

The Christmas season is once again upon us. For many, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But as our culture continues to squeeze the most out of the holiday, many of us have seen it become a relentless rat race. Presents need to be bought, pageants need to be held, dinners must be cooked, and cards have to be sent.

The saving grace of this onslaught of tasks is that Christmas music is back on the radio, in stores, and pretty much anywhere that has a PA system. Many of these songs were written during the immediate postwar period of optimism, cultural unity, and thriving Main Street economics. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas mentions all the classic signs of the holiday—the carols, the bells, the snow—but the first thing it portrays is “the five and ten (variety store) glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow.” The song then conveys the excitement of Christmas as toys appear “in every store.”

It’s clear that the role of these local shops and their front window displays goes far beyond shopping. They not only provide all the toys needed for presents and gifts (the entire third verse of the song) but are an essential part—if not the most central aspect—of the holiday ambiance.

Think about how that compares to our experience today. Once a rarity, “toys in every store” was a telling change in the season. Now corporate drug stores such as Walgreens and CVS are constantly flooded with cheap plastic molds designed to placate your child while you wait to pick up your prescription.

At one time, the seasonal arrival of toys was a careful decision made by small businesses. Because these shops were often housed in humble downtown buildings, they didn’t have the shelf space to keep toys all year. These small shops would go out of their way to get into the spirit of Christmas and give customers a truly inspired experience that made shopping feel special.

Today, however, we’ve lost this unique part of the season. Whether it’s the constant sale of toys at our big retailers, or the year-round availability of holiday products through the internet, there is nothing actually special about shopping at Christmas. And it’s not just the experience we’ve lost—there is now less joy in the products that we buy. Every gift from a big-box store is tainted with the knowledge that it is one of a million copies, while “artisan” gifts brought from small shops are so profligate with campiness (organic blueberry goat’s milk soap) that buying them becomes a smug competition in who can spend the most money on the oddest item.

The very layout of the typical auto-centric American suburb also quietly kills the spirit of Christmas. Everything leading up to the holiday has become stressful and hectic, while still being glum and uninspired. The mall and the big-box stores feel even more depressing around the holidays, as you walk through an expanse of parked cars in the cold and snow. There’s no reward for your misery: Target and Wal-Mart still feel the same when you get inside, except that they’re probably more crowded. You’ve been here a thousand times before and you’ll be back next Tuesday to return the gifts you didn’t want and pick up toilet paper. This cheerless shopping experience is underpinned by the knowledge that your dollars are not staying in the community but are being vacuumed out to Wall Street.

While the parade of lights that so many suburban communities put up are nice, they lack real community engagement. You don’t get out or talk to anyone—you just sit in your car and look at the lights. Soon, we’ll probably have light tours done in virtual reality, so you don’t even have to leave your couch.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no magic panacea for rampant consumerism, but we can make our shopping experience meaningful again by focusing on developing our walkable, traditional downtown areas.

The architectural beauty and community space found in classic American downtowns is far superior to what we build now. Streets lined with structures designed to last centuries highlight traditions of generations past. This connection to history is an essential part of creating a community, especially during Christmas when old buildings are made to sparkle and shimmer, sharing the holiday cheer as they have for decades.

But it’s not just about history and tradition. Classic cities are built for humans and beget human interactions. So while you’re busy with holiday shopping and appointments, you’ll be out walking among other people, following the advice of A Holly Jolly Christmas as you “say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.”

The traditional cities that are sung about in our Christmas music don’t just highlight the spirit of the holiday, they create it. They make us take things slower. They get us walking amidst the lights and decorations on the buildings. They put us on the street, interacting with the other people enjoying the Christmas atmosphere. They are part of the season itself—free and welcoming to all.

For so many families around the country, Christmas is still rooted in tradition. Whether it be meals, songs, events, or the simple act of being together, it is a time where we turn our eyes to our family and acquaintances. Many people work hard to instill their Christmas traditions in their children. Why not ask the same thing of our cities? Do we want our children to associate Christmas with spending hours at the mall or lazily clicking through Amazon? Or do we want them to realize that our physical structures can be part of their heritage and have a lasting impact for generations?

As we deemphasize the role of the cityscape in our lives, we remain giddy about decorating our own houses with images of traditional community. People spend hundreds of dollars on ceramic models of Christmas villages with corner stores, decorated public squares, and open-air Christmas markets. They hang Thomas Kinkade paintings of brightly lit villages on a snowy evening. None of this imagery depicts giant retail stores, neon signs, or vast parking lots. Imagine how ghastly a ceramic model of WalMart or Toys ‘R Us would look perched upon a piano at Christmas time. Yet these are the buildings our city governments often support with generous tax credits.

Some conservatives will dismiss these reactions to the contemporary retail landscape as mere nostalgia: Big-box stores are good and in keeping with the creative destruction of capitalism. Likewise, they might claim that our downtowns fail because they aren’t competitive, and traditionally patterned cities are “not what the market wants.” Such naysayers appear tone deaf to the idea that conservatism might also balance these concerns with the preservation of beauty, place, or tradition.

There is no question that our built environment underscores the idea that as a community feast day, Christmas is no longer important. Our poorly constructed cities are encouraged to overconsume, while the lack of quality public space has eroded our sense of community. The charm of Christmas now only lives in black-and-white movies, where it harkens back to a time and place that people have forgotten how to build. We’ve lost the “Main Street” that made it possible to frame public celebrations and holidays. Is Christmas now limited to plastic trees and lights in the front yard that we put up haphazardly because it’s the social norm?

As you run your errands this holiday season, pay attention to your surroundings. Ask yourself if these built environments are really emblematic of the “greatest nation on earth” or if they serve the purpose of interests—Wall Street and global corporations—not in line with your own best interests and those of your community. We vote with our pocketbooks. If enough of us reject the seeming enticements of the malls and strip centers, we can restore a more humane holiday season. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, cold parking lots, and sterile big-box stores, you might again have a place where you can tell that it is indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Matthias Leyrer lives in Mankato, Minn. He has also written at Strong Towns [1] and his blog, keycity.co [2].

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "A Traditional Christmas Needs a Real Downtown"

#1 Comment By LouisM On December 8, 2017 @ 12:30 am

I tend to see Thanksgiving and Christmas in a similar vein as the traditional catholic feast days for the saint. Catholic Feast days didn’t celebrate the saints, they brought the entire community together to feed the hungry. The hungry were able to stave off starvation until the next feast day while at the same time it weaved all types of people (single, married, families, neighborhoods, towns, etc).

The feast days slowly waned away with VaticanII then both Thanksgiving and Christmas waned with the destruction of marriage and family in the 60s/70s as well as the creation of suburbs. No longer did homes have front porches facing the community. Suburbs turned away from the community and people utilized their backyards.

Today you can look around and see another reason. Where people once gathered to talk, to entertain, to extend hospitality…etc…we are now entertained by our cell phones and tablets and playstation and facebook.

Holidays have lost their meaning of bringing people together. There isn’t 1 thing that can fix it because there isn’t 1 problem causing it.

#2 Comment By Dr. Bill Wedin On December 8, 2017 @ 1:21 am

This is a great little piece that made me think in ways I haven’t thought before.

#3 Comment By John On December 8, 2017 @ 5:49 am

Great, insightful, essay. Growing up in the era when shopping malls became the rage, I still remember the last dying embers of the old Christmas time experiences mentioned here.

For the younger crowd that might be reading this, go watch Polar Express and see the reaction of the kids to the department store, to get a little sense of what that excitement felt like. Or maybe A Christmas Story. Yes, there were elaborate Santa’s workshops and such set up in department stores. Even National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation feels a little more authentic, and includes a wonderful sendup of typical 80s materialists in the form of the neighbors.

Or, if you want to go older school, head to someplace like colonial Williamsburg and see what Christmas ca 1773 looked like. Very refreshing.

I was pondering the other day why I no longer get excited about Christmas from a social perspective. In truth, it’s because there is nothing to get excited about. It is become a plastic holiday with stale rituals and little special about it. If I were not a flawed, yet devout, believer, I would not care at all for it.

Maybe holding our holidays the right way again is another thing our Christian culture needs to begin to reclaim. Given the current state of shopping, not easy to do, but nothing happens without a recognition of a problem.

#4 Comment By Dan Green On December 8, 2017 @ 10:07 am

Great reminder how we have progressed, for better or worse. Was just in my small hometown over Thanksgiving, and always despair how the three pieces of what was our main street I grew up with, are always failing, while the big box stores are on the outskirts. Many including city counsels, struggle to revitalize small main streets however to no avail. Walmart and Home Depot rule.

#5 Comment By Slugger On December 8, 2017 @ 10:59 am

In rural Illinois in the 1950s we would ride the train, the Rock Island Rocket, to Chicago. At the station we were met by our cousins and taken to their house to eat, play board games, and sleep. After lunch the next day, we’d go to Marshall Fields. The store was lit, sparkling, glowing. Fifty perfumes challenged you as you walked in. Music everywhere. My parents could not afford much, and my presents were usually practical things like clothes, but I’ll not forget the electric trains that fired my thoughts. Maybe if we had been able to afford the electric trains, I would have tired of them. The trains out reach of of my family stayed with me. I have had much more material success than my parents and gave my offspring their heart’s desire, but I could not give that spark of wonder.

#6 Comment By Mary Myers On December 8, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

Having lived in Mankato most of my life, until four years ago, I can really identify with this article. Mankato’s historic downtown area was completely destroyed back in the seventies to make way for a monstrosity of a covered mall, and the Christmas shopping experience changed dramatically. Front street died, and urban renewal wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. I missed all those great shops, movie theaters, and restaurants from Brett’s to Salet’s. And then there was Michael’s Restaurant, the most elegant place in town where shoppers took time out for a wonderful lunch. Artist Marian Anderson did a beautiful painting of the old downtown Mankato which brings back many fond memories of Christmases past.

Thank you, Matthias Leyrer, for a trip down memory lane.

#7 Comment By Danielle Matuschka On December 8, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

A great example of a small town Christmas with a lovely main street is Natchitoches, LA. Feel free to come down for a visit during our annual Christmas Festival!

#8 Comment By Youknowho On December 8, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

The author likes Christmas music. So do I, for a couple of days.

After that Chrismas carols become a thing to be endured, sounding more and more lugubrious each time you hear them.

Christmas music. A little goes a long way…

#9 Comment By Quimbob On December 8, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

My hometown demolished their downtown & surrendered to a mall that is now pretty much dead.
I remember walking around on the crowded streets around Christmas as a kid tho.

#10 Comment By David B On December 8, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

One of the greatest threats to the “small downtown community which you describe so eloquently is found in the way which Business management has been taught in the past few decades. When profitability is based on Quarterly profit and Loss, and the long term health of society is ignored in the drive for short term profits, then we have really lost the true vision on which this country was founded. We need a radical revival of our whole financial system, where net worth is based on the good (or bad) we leave for the next generation instead of how much we take with us.

#11 Comment By PR Doucette On December 8, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

Enjoy whatever decorations your local mall or box stores put up now because every retailer from Walmart on down are all moving to e-commerce so many mall and box stores will be closing in the coming years. It is sad that except in maybe a few major cities where the downtown/main street stores still decorate their windows or in some local communities Christmas fairs with local artisans have been set up, all that used to be on the main streets of almost every town and city is now gone along with the Christmas catalogues from Sears and Montgomery Wards which for a boy growing up in the country were my decorated store windows.

#12 Comment By Matthias Leyrer On December 8, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

Thanks everyone for your comments. Wish I could respond to them!

#13 Comment By William Dalton On December 8, 2017 @ 8:22 pm

Restoring the shopping ambiance immortalized in 20th Century Christmas movies would be nice – and a great lifesaver for what remains of American downtowns – but it still won’t suffice for what the holiday really needs: the universal affirmation that we set this day aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – the hope of the world.

#14 Comment By Dr. Bill Wedin On December 8, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

Why can’t you?

#15 Comment By MR IAN D WILLIAMS On December 9, 2017 @ 4:36 am

I couldn’t agree more with this. As an Australian who lives close to the centre of Melbourne, in old suburbs (1880s and on), we are really fortunate in having three small “main streets” nearby, and a pretty nice mall up on the hill.

All of them decorate beautifully for Christmas, and it’s a real pleasure. But go another 15 miles out to the new suburbs and it’s quite awful.I couldn’t agree more with this. As an Australian who lives close to the centre of Melbourne, in old suburbs (1880s and on), we are really fortunate in having three small “main streets” nearby, and a pretty nice mall up on the hill.

All of them decorate beautifully for Christmas, and it’s a real pleasure. But go another 15 miles out to the new suburbs and it’s quite awful.

#16 Comment By Marie On December 9, 2017 @ 9:26 am

Matthias–You have focused on such an important problem, and more work will be needed than just voting with our pocketbooks. We need to create intentional communities. Do you know of Hyattesville, MD? We need a political movement, like ProLife.

#17 Comment By philadelphialawyer On December 9, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

Downtowns are great in my estimation, but most people actually preferred shopping in malls and in box stores, regardless of government policy. Traffic and parking are actually worse in downtowns than in malls or box stores. It is exhausting slepping your purchases from store to store, and then from the stores to wherever you parked. The downtown is ideal for people who don’t have cars, and live within walking distance or easy public transportation rides of the stores. Most people don’t live that way. They live in suburbs, and that mean you have to drive to either the mall/box store OR the downtown. But the mall/box store is set up for the driver’s convenience while the downtown is set up for the convenience of the folks who can walk or ride to it.

The downtown is not some entirely separate thing, that can thrive in a mostly suburban environment on the basis of volunteer behavior advocated on a blog. You have to get rid of the suburbs to make downtown shopping what it once was. And that is a tall order.

The old school department store being idolized here is simply not coming back, no matter what. The toy department only stocked at Christmas time is even more anachronistic. That is just not what most people want. Even toys themselves now take a back seat to devices and platforms that allow for play but are also useful in other ways.

And, as PR Doucette writes, even the mall and the box store are on the way out, because online shopping takes convenience and discounts to even a higher level.

But, perhaps instead of scoffing at the small “artisan” shops, the author might consider that these are actually the model for what successful downtowns, including those in smaller cities and towns, can do. Folks want to buy their mass produced gifts online, because it is cheaper and easier, and because there is no difference between what is offered on line and what is available at the box store, the mall, or the downtown. But they also like the experience the author lionized. They like window displays and Christmas music playing and window shopping, while buying specialty items, handmade items, customized items, and, yes, even “artisan” items, in small, friendly shops that have just the kind of atmosphere the author loves.

#18 Comment By Richard L Layman On December 10, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

Well, then you ought to be lobbying your Republican congressional representatives to eliminate from the new “tax reform” bill those provisions which are deliberately designed to f* over cities, the places which typically have such intact centers.

By eliminating New Markets and Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits, maintaining urban properties that are bypassed through institutional biases created within the real estate development and financing system becomes much more difficult.

Similarly, cities tend to bear heavier social service and other service requirements than less dense areas that are more costly to maintain, therefore leading to higher taxes necessary to generate the revenues to cover those costs.

But with the virtual elimination of the SALT deduction, the conservative principle of subsidiarity is shown to lack much heft at all, since your taxation policy says, again, f*u* to cities and subsidiarity because the tax burden on urban residents will increase.

#19 Comment By TR On December 11, 2017 @ 9:13 am

Beware of nostalgia. Yes, I certainly miss the downtown department stores with their extravagant window displays and the Sears Christmas catalogues that one commenter mentioned. But those younger surely have their own Christmas memories just as vivid for them.

To add a more cynical note to the orthodox Christian reminder above–Mr. Leyrer’s good old times were always accompanied by a background murmur from the local clergy deploring the “commercialization” of Christmas. “Put Christ back in Christmas” is not a slogan thought up yesterday.

#20 Comment By MaryL On December 12, 2017 @ 11:48 am

The retail “holy”days deserve no accommodation, or attention. It’s crap culture that interferes with religious observances. Talk about appropriation!

#21 Comment By Greg On December 25, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

At some point will conservatives wake up and realize capitalism destroys everything human?

#22 Comment By Bradley On December 26, 2017 @ 12:30 am

Matthias. Brad Z from BLC here. Having flashbacks to Live w Ty. I think I may have seen an article in the Free Press from you not too long ago as well.

I did not read over the article from top to bottom, because it lacks direction. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious theme, and when I searched specifically for a call to action, it wasn’t clear there was any call. So anyway.

In other news, I go to China in February. Say hi to the wife ‘n’ family.

#23 Comment By Trent On December 26, 2017 @ 8:17 pm

“They hang Thomas Kinkade paintings of brightly lit villages on a snowy evening. None of this imagery depicts giant retail stores, neon signs, or vast parking lots.”

Similarly, and a bit ironically, car commercials never show the car rolling through a mall parking lot; it’s always downtown, with the the bustle of human life on the sidewalks in the background.

We romanticize the beauty of the traditional town and city, but continue to passively support the policies which create the disconnected, dismal, highly regulated, auto-centric development of the last 60 years. Trends are reversing, reverting back to the norm, but it will take generations to fix all the mistakes of post-war zoning.

#24 Comment By mrscracker On December 27, 2017 @ 6:53 am

I have happy memories shopping in a small town with one main street that had a couple little family owned stores. The other shopping option was the Sears catalogue.
But those little stores were preceded by peddlers and the peddlers were preceded by Indian traders. And those were all different manifestations of capitalism.

#25 Comment By Boris On December 30, 2017 @ 11:26 pm

People can romanticize downtown as much as they want but the stubborn truth is that people abandoned downtowns because the middle class wanted to self segregate, to get away from the riff raff, the poor, the minorities, and avoid the expense of actually upgrading aging infrastructure in exchange for federally subsidized, centrally planned, suburban sprawl.

It’s social engineering at its best. Now that the suburbs are aging, people are rethinking them bit for all the wrong reasons: they will be too expensive to fix. Let’s look for the next exclusionary economic model that we can use to avoid facing the wreckage that we have caused.