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17 old photos of the holidays in Philly

From Gallery Mall to Rittenhouse Square, here’s how Philadelphia used to deck its halls

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.

Philly does the holidays well, as evidenced by all of these places that have really gone above and beyond to deck themselves out for the special season. After all, the city has quite a bit of experience of going all out during the holidays, from Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) to City Hall to South 13th Street.

But these old holiday photos we found show that some things have changed over the years. Apparently, Reyburn Plaza (now Thomas Paine Plaza) used to transform into a Christmas wonderland for kids. And, of course, the old Gallery Mall in Market East (the future Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia) used to pull its weight during the holiday season, too.

And yet, some things never change. Rittenhouse Square has always had its special tree lighting, and SEPTA’s Jolley Trolley has been a welcome delight for decades.

Here now is a collection of some of the city best holiday moments, ranging from the late 1920s up until the 1980s.


This was the Packard Christmas dinner on December 20, 1928.
Courtesy of the Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia


Photographer Paul Vanderbilt captured this Christmas tree on top of a bar on Market Street for the Library of Congress in 1938.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress


Here’s a look at everyone’s favorite Jolly Trolley tradition in 1948. The original caption read, "Mrs. Martha Kashner, of 6311 Girard av., puts Christmas decorations on the Route 42 trolley upon which she is conductor. This is the fourth year she has been adding a holiday touch to her car. She also distributes candy canes to children who ride with her."


Here’s a look at the Wanamaker’s organ during the holidays in 1952, long before the department store became a Macy’s.


Before it was home to the over-sized Monopoly and Parcheesi pieces, the Thomas Paine Plaza (AKA Reyburn Plaza) transformed into a Christmas play place, thanks to the Recreation department. This was taken in 1953.
Carolers take over Reading Terminal Market in 1953, while dressed up in 1830s attire.


This was Dorrance Street, decked out for the holidays on December 15, 1954


As the holiday season came to a close in 1955, the city began its holiday cleanup project, stuffing discarded Christmas trees into chippers, shown here at 17th and Johnston.


After the tree-lighting ceremony in Rittenhouse Square in 1957, everyone stuck around to sing carols together, donning fur coats and all.


Crowds gather for the tree-lighting at City Hall’s courtyard on December 9, 1959. Today, the Christmas tree at City Hall is located on the North Broad side.


The old Bell Telephone building, now One Parkway, shown here lit up in 1964.


Here at the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church, one of the oldest buildings in Philadelphia, Santa Claus reads from a German bible on Christmas Eve in 1965.


At 9th and Market you could find the old Gimbels department store’s windows decked out in festive displays.


Huge crowds gathered to watch the light display at Wanamaker’s in 1973. Today, the show goes off multiple times throughout the day, offering shoppers and visitors various times to catch it


Here’s how Wanamaker’s Christmas Light Show looked in 1976. Not much has changed since then.


The Christmas Tree gets lowered in City Hall’s courtyard on November 30, 1977.


It’s a dusty construction zone right now, but the Gallery Mall, shown here in 1981, used to go all out during the holidays, too.