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ST. LOUIS • Back when baby boomers were youngsters, downtown was a Christmas wonderland.

The city's three main department stores competed with bright, busy displays in their streetside windows. Electric trains rushed out of tunnels across bridges. Rocking elves hammered at toys. Reindeer and other cute critters bobbed and spun in sparkling snow scenes. A jam of kids pressed against the windows. Christmas music blended with police officers' whistles in the noisy bustle.

Inside the stores, lines of families waiting to see Santa snaked through toy departments and into elaborate "Santa lands." The tots usually didn't catch on, but the stores had two or three Santas working at the same time.

Shopping downtown at Christmas had been a big deal for decades, but the years after World War II were the golden age for the annual family treks. Streetcars and buses crowded the streets. The baby boom filled the sidewalks with young believers.

Their parents, raised during the Depression and World War II, wanted to indulge them and had a few bucks to do it. The stores obligingly stuffed their shelves with shiny bicycles, cowboy outfits, fancy dolls and an endless offering of whirling, flashing gadgets.

Into the 1960s, newspapers regularly reported on the annual battle of the store windows. A story in 1952 described in detail the Stix, Baer & Fuller window, at Seventh Street and Washington Avenue, that featured Santa filling his sack with toys as Rudolph, not yet a hero, "sheds tears into a red bucket. Rabbits, squirrels and mice look on sympathetically."

That same year, Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney celebrated the contributions of Mrs. Santa Claus. Famous-Barr countered with a window filled with elves making stuffed pandas.

Look Back:  Christmas past - 1958

David Kothe, 4, son of Mr. and Mrs. David Kothe of Florissant, imagines himself commander of a toy tank at the Stix, Baer & Fuller store in November 1958. (Jack January/Post-Dispatch)

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In 1958, Famous-Barr's multiple Santas worked amidst a "Magic Forest" filled with snow-covered trees. The following year, Stix lured families with a "Crystal Forest," with a medieval castle kids could climb through.

Shortly before Thanksgiving 1973, teenage sisters Mary and Ruth Chott of south St. Louis County went downtown to see the windows. "It's just more Christmasy downtown," Mary said.

But nothing could stop the migration of shoppers to the suburbs. Scruggs closed in 1967. The last run of Famous-Barr's electric-train window was 1974. Stix became Dillard's in 1983 and closed its downtown store in 2001.