It's a family tradition that started long ago - our annual December trek downtown. My grandparents used to take me and my cousin, Kristena, to the then Dayton's, now Macy's, 8th floor Christmas display. It seemed like magic, crawling into the back seat of their blue Buick, driving toward the city of lights. We gazed with delight as we crossed Nicollet Avenue - it's tree-lined branches perfectly frosted with strings of white. As we entered downtown Dayton's, I knew it was no ordinary store. It's art deco glamour spoke an elegance of days past - like an old movie that I could walk through and touch and feel and smell. The eighth floor bustled with excitement. As we waited patiently in line, we knew a storybook land was just around the corner. Once inside this land of enchantment, we savored every mechanical figurine and lingered on every posted word. From Mary Poppins to Dr. Seuss, each year proved to be a new adventure. As we strolled through the animated stories, the smell of gingerbread lured us to the end - a smell so sweet, yet always just a tad too spicy for my childhood taste - those gingery men with their white chocolate buttons and red hot eyes.
If the line was not too long, a visit to Santa was allowed. The real finale, however, was a trip to Santa's Store. Here we would enter through a miniature door and shop for a gift for our parents. Five dollars could not buy much, even then, but it could buy pencils and coasters and the annual Old Spice!
Each year we would end our adventure with a trip to the Nankin Restaurant, a landmark that lived a lifetime on 7th Street in Minneapolis. With it's tropical aquariums, soaring ceilings and spacious balconies, the Nankin was the perfect culmination to our fancy downtown evening. Even as a child, I recognized the irony of my grandparents taking us to a Chinese restaurant. A scandinavian couple who viewed spaghetti as ethnic food, and whose spice cupboard held little more than salt, sugar and cardamon, they would always split one order of plain chowmein - the cheapest thing on the menu.
It's been three years since my grandparents passed away, and many more since my cousin and I last drove downtown in their blue Buick. In almost 40 years, however, I have barely missed a trip. Now, even though Atlanta is where we call home, we still travel back each year in December. Now I take my own children to Macy's 8th floor, with it's sights and smells of Christmas. And even though the Nankin has since shut it's doors, we still find the magic in making our own memories.