Even before the founding of the city of Spokane, a few stories haven been recorded about Christmas celebrations among early missionaries and converts to Christianity among the Indian tribes as far back as the 1830 and 1840s.
But since the city’s founding in the 1870s, its growth as a holiday shopping mecca was led by its department stores, specialty retailers and sellers of holiday treats. The shopping season often was kicked off by some kind of event involving Santa Claus arriving in the downtown area, at a department store or shopping mall. Starting in the 1920s, these events were often organized by an arm of the Chamber of Commerce called the Retail Trade Bureau, often working in tandem with area’s largest department stores, like Sears and Roebuck, the Crescent, Bon Marche, Montgomery Ward and others, along with civic groups, fraternal clubs and churches.
Beginning in 1923, the bureau’s first project was to deck all the streets, from Monroe Street to Bernard Streets, from Main Avenue to First Avenue, some 32 square block in all, with evergreen boughs and bell-shaped ornaments, strung over the roadway. The decorations would stay up from Thanksgiving to New Years. Though styles changed, the practice continued for decades.
In 1950, the Bureau paid to fly Santa Claus to an empty lot downtown in a two-seat helicopter as thousands of children and parents cheered.
Along with holiday décor, the Bureau also organized seminars for salespeople, synchronized store hours, and led cleanup efforts.
After more than 70 years in existence, the Retail Trade Bureau’s work moved to the Downtown Spokane Partnership around 1995, when downtown business owners, ranging from Division Street to Walnut Street and between the railroad viaduct and the banks of the Spokane River, voted to tax themselves to pay for cleanup teams, street and sidewalk maintenance, advertising, special event promotion and security patrols.
Although large department stores have largely faded from the retail landscape, children and families still make time for Santa Claus’ arrival in a variety of venues. Santa’s chair at Spokane Valley Mall will be filled starting, Nov. 16. Santa will make his appearance at River Park Square mall Saturday, Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. next to the giant Christmas tree in the atrium.