As one who likes to entertain in a humorous way, let me take a sentimental moment to write about a Christmas memory. You may find your thoughts reverting back to the late 1950s yourself. This is about a mother-daughter excursion to Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. It was a day of many thrills: eating breakfast with Santa, having pictures taken with St. Nick, flying high in the Pink Pig monorail, independently shopping in Santa’s Secret Shop, and being mesmerized by the lighting of The Great Tree.
Founded in 1867, Rich’s came to symbolize Atlanta’s retail shopping experience during the 20th century and was inextricably linked with our capitol’s history. By the 1950s, Rich’s Magnolia Tea Room Restaurant was known for its fashion shows and light luncheon fare including their delicious chicken salad, cheese straws, and fabulous coconut cake. Our ‘Breakfast with Santa’ was also held here and children squealed with delight as Santa meandered around and spoke to each of us while we enjoyed our rice krispies mixed with vanilla ice cream.
And I didn’t spill a drop on my green velvet dress. With ruffled ankle socks and black patent leather shoes, I carried a white faux fur muff with matching hat for my picture after breakfast with St. Nick. Although lines were long, I was never frightened because he looked just like the picturesque Coca-Cola Santa. Photographs were taken while children sat on his knee and whispered their secret Christmas desires. Santa’s helpers gave green Christmas tree shaped candy to partakers. The black and white 5” X 7” photo was mailed to your home shortly after your visit.
Another thrill was riding Priscilla, The Pink Pig. In 1956, the bright pink monorail debuted with a piggy snout and curly tail. This magical journey around the toy department with all the toys, decorations, and sparkling lights was only 3 ½ minutes long and only costing a quarter. Later moving to the rooftop, the car traveled onto the Crystal Bridge, a four story all-glass bridge that stretched across Forsyth Street, connecting Rich’s two buildings. It then carried you around the base of the tree giving an enormous view of all the glistening ornaments as large basketballs and a view overlooking the city streets. I still have a white, satin sticker with Priscilla’s smiling face declaring, “I Rode the Pink Pig.”
I remember shopping at Santa’s Secret Shop on the fifth floor. The emporium allowed me to privately pick out inexpensive gifts for my parents because adults were not allowed in. Santa’s elves assisted me while mother shopped elsewhere in the store. Rich’s set up accounts where parents paid for their children’s acquisitions using what was called ‘the charge plate.’ All purchases were secretly wrapped.
As the day stretched into dusk, mother and I, along with tens of thousands from all over the South, attended the lighting of the Great Tree. Generating more anticipation for the ceremony, city lights were turned off for about 30 minutes after a complete sunset. Then the freshly-cut 75 foot tall Georgia White pine came to life with its miles of sparkle and 7-foot-tall star. Standing atop the Crystal Bridge, each of the bridge’s four levels provided Christmas carols from heralding choruses. Rich’s Great Tree was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on December 15, 1961.
Everything about Rich’s was OURS. It was home and not just at Christmas. It was as much a part of the Atlanta landscape as the statue of the Phoenix (purchased by Rich’s) once featured downtown and known as “Atlanta from the Ashes,” a symbol of Atlanta’s revival. This Christmas memory’s afterglow warms me since this tradition at this location no longer exists. But once there was a time that was magical and Southerners came near and far to spend a part of their holiday at “The Store of the South.”