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Saturday, February 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Then and Now: Downtown Spokane Christmas

A life-size Santa statue in a Philadelphia store in 1841 is said to have spawned the tradition of live Santa Claus characters at stores, malls and special events. As Christmas was rejuvenated with the Santa craze, the jolly old elf quickly became a marketing vehicle.

In Spokane, it had fallen to the Chamber of Commerce to promote downtown Christmas shopping since the organization’s start in 1897. In 1917, the Retail Trade Bureau was launched to organize retailers for seasonal events and downtown beautification.

Christmas was always the bureau’s biggest effort, and the arrival of Santa Claus was a celebrated event. He has come by horse and buggy, truck-mounted sleigh, parade float and automobile. In 1950, Santa arrived in a Bell 47 helicopter. Helicopters were still a rare sight at the time, and a large crowd watched the Bell 47 land in an empty lot where the athletic facility of the Spokane Club now stands.

The money available for holiday events varied over the years, depending on the economy. In the early 1950s, the bureau spent a little over $6,000 to dress up the streets for Christmas. In 1973, the chamber vowed to cut energy use of the seasonal decorations with nonlighted decor because the oil embargo against the United States had driven energy prices higher.

The bureau had a Christmas display and window-decorating contest for many years. The window division was usually won by the Crescent department store, which had fanciful window scenes with moving figures. In the 1950s, the winning window designer received $50 from the chamber.

The Retail Trade Bureau would be renamed the Central Business Association and later, the Downtown Spokane Association. In 1995, a business improvement district was formed. Businesses voted to tax themselves to provide for downtown beautification, security and special promotions. This year, the Downtown Spokane Partnership put up more than 75,000 LED lights in 90 downtown trees, is offering free carriage rides and has hired strolling carolers to entertain shoppers.

– Jesse Tinsley

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