The Christmas Boxes

Maas Bros. Department Store in downtown St. Petersburg
My late mother-in-law Dorothy was a child of the Depression. She’d grown up in a Pennsylvania steel town, married young and never worked outside the home or even learned to drive. Dot was widowed young too, left to raise five children on her own–the oldest being my husband, who was 15 when his father died, and the youngest his seven-year-old baby sister. To say that she was a woman of tremendous spirit, and unstinting faith, is an understatement. Despite the fact that she didn’t drive, I can’t remember a Sunday she didn’t manage to somehow make it to Mass. There was no football or baseball game missed, no swim meet skipped if her children were involved. She was a band booster, a PTA stalwart, a constant presence in the football concession stand. I used to tease her relentlessly about being a “career athletic supporter.” She perfected the art of making do and positive thinking. An expert seamstress, she took in sewing to help make ends meet, and baked thousands of cookies and sweets at Christmas to give as gifts. God love her, she could squeeze a penny ’til it squeaked. Dot was a coupon-clipper extraordinaire. You could always tell if she’d been in your house, because the cans had all been stripped of their labels for couponing purposes. And woe be to you if you threw away an empty cookie tin or a used butter wrapper–“Honey, save that!” was her cry, as she rifled through your kitchen trashcan. At Christmas, she was in her element. She’d saved up all her Crisco and Dixie Crystals coupons, had stashed away bags of chocolate chips bought on special at Publix (her happy place), and in the garage, she had a mountain of Tupperware tubs and holiday tins bought at yard-sales for pennies and nickels, for just such re-gifting purposes. Her oven was ancient and unpredictable, with a door that routinely fell off, but still, Dot managed to turn out her masterpiece cookie trays. Nut roll, a sweet yeast bread with ground pecan filling was her specialty, but then there also the peanut blossoms, date pinwheels, meringues, wedding cookies, congo bars, bird’s nests, jelly-filled thumbprints, and her trademark confection–the lady locks–a flaky puff pastry creation baked around a wooden rod and piped with a cream filling.

When it came to gifting, she was just as thrifty. Every year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, her sons would be directed to put up a ladder to gain access to the “attic” crawl space. Down would come the cartons of ornaments, and more importantly, the boxes of boxes. Of course, Dot saved wrapping paper and ribbon and tissue year-round, but the boxes were her triumph. A gift box at Dot’s house had the half-life of plutonium, which meant that every year you could count on taking a sentimental stroll down retail lane.

Kaufmann’s in downtown Pittsburgh

Come Christmas morning, you’d open your gift from Dot and stare down at a gift box from Kaufmann’s, the “big store” in downtown Pittsburgh, where she hadn’t lived since 1965. Of course, it was unlikely the gift had actually been purchased from Kaufmann’s. More likely it was something she’d picked up on clearance months earlier at the Beall’s Outlet, or another discount store that didn’t have anything as fancy as gift boxes. Or maybe you’d find something encased in crinkled tissue from Webb’s City, a St. Petersburg landmark shuttered in the 1970s. If the gift was a nightie or slip, it likely came in a pink and white striped Belk-Lindsey box–another long-closed retail fixture in our hometown. After my freshman year of college, when I worked as parttime Christmas help at Thalhimer’s in downtown Richmond, there were recycled Thalhimer’s boxes for several years. Better than a Kaufmann’s or Webb’s City box, though, were the stacks of turquoise and white Maas Bros. Department Store boxes with the stylized palm tree emblem that she’d squirrelled away after our wedding in 1976. She especially adored the hard-sided gold foil boxes our wedding china and crystal had been sent in–not to mention the now-yellowed bubble wrap that had swaddled said crystal.

After my husband and I moved to Savannah, and then Atlanta, boxes from the old Levy’s Department Store on Broughton Street in downtown Savannah, and then the iconic Rich’s in downtown Atlanta took their place in Dot’s box of boxes. Every Christmas morning, after the presents were opened, the gift boxes were collected, collapsed and carefully stored in a cardboard carton that went back up to the attic. A heart attack felled Dot in the summer of 1999. It took months to sort through the house she’d lived in for more than thirty years. She’d packed every closet, cabinet and cupboard with the fruits of decades of yard-saling. At the estate sale, we resorted to throwing in a free piece of Tupperware with every item we sold. Ten years later we all still have pieces of Dot’s Tupperware. And at Christmas-time, at our house, somehow, when the cartons of ornaments and decorations come up from the basement, so does the box of gift boxes. My practical husband thinks it’s ridiculous to save the boxes. Why not pop a gift into one of those handy gift bags, or just wrap it in tissue and slap a bow on it? But I’m sentimental. The downtown Maas Bros., where I attended charm school as a teenager and worked as a sales clerk, buying my wedding dress on layaway with my employee discount, met the fate of so many other “big stores” across the country in the ’70s. First it was closed, then it’s identity was subsumed by another retail giant, and then, the final insult, it was bulldozed. Gone too are Kaufmann’s, where Dot shopped on her infrequent trips home to Pittsburgh. It’s called Macy’s now. The old Levy’s store in downtown Savannah is a college library now, and that dear old downtown Rich’s, where I spent many a lunch hour when I worked at the newspaper, was closed and eventually torn down too.

R.I.P. Rich’s in downtown Atlanta

These days, I rarely shop at Macy’s, the entity that also swallowed Rich’s. It’s infantile, but like a lot of other people in Atlanta, I’m still pissed at Macy’s for doing away with the Rich’s name. (I’m pretty sure Chicagoans are also still holding a grudge against Macy’s for doing away with Marshall-Fields.) I like Talbot’s, and their pretty and substantial red gift boxes. And I admit to shopping at Marshall’s and TJMaxx, lured by the promise of low prices. But the discount stores are charmless, and they don’t give you gift boxes, not that I’d want to flaunt that TJ logo anyway. So out come the old Rich’s boxes, augmented by the occasional Orvis or the rare Bloomingdale boxes. The recipients know, and I know they know, their gift probably didn’t come from Bloomies. Or maybe it did. I’ll never tell! And I also know that sometime Christmas morning, when he thinks I’m not looking, my husband will try to slide the used gift boxes into the fireplace along with the wrapping paper. And I know I’ll find myself stopping him, hear myself crying, “Honey, save that!”

5 thoughts on “The Christmas Boxes”

  1. I come from a long line of box savers myself – my mom, my grandmom. I sneak mine back into the "decoration closet" every year after gifts are opened. I sure miss those downtown department stores – the mall stores just don't have the charm. Rome used to have a local department store called Essermans. All moms of brides bought their dresses there from the room in the back where such dresses were housed. I guess it finally closed mid to late eighties. If you ever get to Oxford MS, there is still one great old downtown department store called Neilson's (sp?)on the square. It will take you back

  2. I'm the keeper of the family boxes, although I seldom use them myself. Every year, my brother drops by with a paper grocery bag stuffed with them to "store" for him until the next Christmas rolls around. Why do I do this? Beats me, but it's tradition.

    I have some boxes I don't let go of, though. They're from Sibley's and McCurdy's which were eaten up by Bon-Ton and Kaufmann's back in the 70s–and now Kaufmann's is Macy's. *Sigh* It's never ending. (So who do we think will buy out Macy's?)

  3. My mom saved boxes for Christmas every year also. You never saw the actual box though. She always wrapped the lid and wrapped the bottom. The ribbon would be taped under the lid so that all you had to do was lift the lid. Paper and ribbon intact. The boxes were grabbed up and put back into the attic to be reused the following year. I forgot all about that until reading your story. Thanks for the memories!

  4. Nice Story, brings back memories…I too have a few saved boxes. My favorites are Thalhimer's (jewelry from college years), Garfinkel's and Woodward & Lothrop. From the DC area, it was always a great treat to go shopping with Grandma and my mother. I do miss those department stores.

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