This photo shows the Christmas toy window display at Rumbaugh-MacLain Department Store in downtown Everett on Dec. 10, 1935. (Everett Public Library)

This photo shows the Christmas toy window display at Rumbaugh-MacLain Department Store in downtown Everett on Dec. 10, 1935. (Everett Public Library)

Before the malls, Christmas shoppers flocked to Everett

Historian Larry O’Donnell looks back on the days when downtown was the county’s retail center.

When historian Larry O’Donnell thinks about boyhood holidays, his thoughts go to downtown Everett.

O’Donnell grew up in the city in the 1940s. Then, as now, downtown Everett was the political center of Snohomish County. But in those days it was also the county’s retail center. If there was Christmas shopping to be done, most county residents headed for downtown Everett.

“Downtown Everett was the shopping center for all of Snohomish County,” O’Donnell said. “It had the biggest stores and it’s where people came to buy jewelry, furniture, cars …”

In those days, long before Everett Mall and Alderwood mall, there were five department stores in Everett’s downtown, all with special lights and window displays at Christmastime.

“It was always a big deal to go downtown,” O’Donnell said. “Everett was really packed. The congestion was so bad during Christmas that you couldn’t drive through town.”

Neil Westover, now retired, who was born and raised in Everett, agreed that downtown Everett was a bustling place during the holidays in the ’40s and ’50s.

“It was quite an event to be downtown at Christmastime,” he said. “Traffic was really intense.”

What still impresses him was not just the number of people, but how they all were dressed to the nines. “All the men were wearing hats and topcoats and all the women were wearing dresses and hats,” he said.

All the hubbub could be confusing for children. Westover remembers hustling along to keep up with his dad. “I grabbed his arm only to discover I had the wrong arm. It wasn’t my dad,” said Westover, who now resides in Marysville.

Longtime Daily Herald photographer Jim Leo took this picture of the downtown Everett Christmas Parade on a rainy afternoon, Dec. 3, 1960. (Everett Public Library)

Longtime Daily Herald photographer Jim Leo took this picture of the downtown Everett Christmas Parade on a rainy afternoon, Dec. 3, 1960. (Everett Public Library)

Downtown Everett may have been hopping, but the city was a shadow of its current self, population-wise. Everett’s population was just under 34,000 in 1950, compared to about 109,000 today.

Obtaining the family Christmas tree was a simpler matter back then. “There was enough open space in Everett that you just went out and cut one,” O’Donnell said. “You didn’t pay any attention to whose property it was.”

In addition to shopping, Westover enjoyed a family activity still popular today — taking a drive in the evening to enjoy all the holiday lights. Colby Avenue was lit up like a Christmas tree. Colby was very “mall-like” and festive, he said.

O’Donnell also remembers fondly that many of the local businesses had special lighting displays for the holidays. He cited Solie Funeral Home, opened in 1940, as being among the businesses that tried to have a special display every year.

Jerry Solie of Everett said his late father, Lloyd, who owned the business then, was committed to having a good holiday display, such as a manger scene. “He would have them cut out of plywood and painted, and we would do different things every year,” Jerry Solie said. “He felt really committed to do that.”

O’Donnell said he also enjoyed what had been a holiday tradition for Everett radio station KRKO, which read kids’ letters to Santa on the air.

Westover, noting the importance of fraternal organizations like the Elks and the Eagles clubs, said they had big Christmas celebrations in Everett. The same was true for the Sons of Norway.

Pat Maher, of Everett, whose grandparents were from Norway, said they introduced him to a lot of Norwegian holiday delicacies and even a tradition of having lighted candles on the Christmas tree.

“I don’t know what happened, but they only did that one year,” he said of the candles.

Women’s winter wear is displayed in a window of the Rumbaugh-MacLain Department Store in downtown Everett in December 1934. (Everett Public Library)

Women’s winter wear is displayed in a window of the Rumbaugh-MacLain Department Store in downtown Everett in December 1934. (Everett Public Library)

As for the delicacies: “They were really big on pastries,” he said. “The Norwegian families would spend weeks and weeks making all the Christmas goodies.”

Solie, now 81, enjoyed the holiday celebrations at the Sons of Norway’s Normanna Lodge No. 3. He still does.

Normanna celebrates the Christmas holidays each year starting with a Scandinavian bazaar in November where vendors sell Norwegian crafts and foods like pickled herring or lefse, a Norwegian flatbread. That’s followed by festivities in December that include a children’s Christmas party with presents and a big julebord, or Scandinavian feast.

Lisa Maher of Normanna said the julebord is “an incredible” three-course meal heaped with traditional foods. “You eat, you visit and you eat some more,” she said. “The whole dinner is very slow.”

Some folks don their bunad, traditional Norwegian clothing, for the celebration.

For about the past decade, Everett’s Christmas celebration has drifted more to the waterfront, where the Port of Everett has a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and Santa visit, a Toys for Tots drive, a holiday festival with vendors and live music, free craft activities and movies for kids, and a lighted boat parade.

“We wanted to provide an upland experience for the community when people came down for the boat parade,” said the port’s Lisa Lefeber. She noted the event, which includes the Mukilteo Yacht Club and the Imagine Children’s Museum, is growing in popularity, attracting nearly 1,000 people last year.

Many communities hold similar events.

Edmonds, for example, typically has a downtown holiday market and tree lighting ceremony; Marysville has Merrysville for the Holidays events that include collecting food and gifts for people in need; Mukilteo hosts a tree lighting and holiday open house; and Arlington also hosts a holiday open house.

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the winter issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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