Remember the days when holiday window displays beckoned and brick-and-mortar toy stores reigned supreme? Probably not. For most of us, this whole holiday experience—the time when the five and ten is glistening once again, with candy canes and silver lanes that glow—is a relic of a bygone era. Nowadays, online stores and Insta ads have replaced the sensory pleasure and in-person experience of holiday shopping.
But in Cincinnati, not only can you still take your kids to a good, old-fashioned toy store, but now through New Year’s, you can also take the kids to see one of our city’s most celebrated Christmas displays: the Shillito’s Elves.
The Shillito’s Elves are a long-standing Cincinnati tradition that, back in the 1950s, took “holiday window displays” to the next level. In their heyday, more than 130 animated figures filled Shillito’s downtown store, bringing Santa’s Workshop to life through seven storefront scenes, 20 in-store merchandising widows and 10 interior vignettes. Moved by levers and gears, the elves spent the holidays busily building toys, sorting Santa’s mail and loading his sleigh. Then, in 1982, Shillito’s became Lazarus…and the elves disappeared.
Fast forward 30-plus years to 2006, when the Elves were brought back to life by Cincinnatian Bill Spinnenweber, whose family owns the Mariemont Inn. They had a good run in Mariemont, but in 2017, they closed up shop…and then with the pandemic, the elves’ future was looking grim.
But Christmas is a time of magic and miracles, and this season, the Shillito’s Elves have returned for double the fun. In addition to the Santa’s Workshop walk-through display in Mariemont, the elves are also working away at The Foundry, which long-time residents know as the former home of Macy’s. Returning for the downtown display are the Mail Sorter, Little Woodshop, Pete the Painter, Lazzie Bear and Gift Wrap, Ralph the Piano Player, and the Bunkbed Elves, each scene intricately decorated and delightfully played out for families to enjoy while walking and shopping downtown.
If the last few years have taught me anything, it’s the importance of celebrating the little things and not taking anything for granted. So this year’s return of the Shillito’s Elves? It’s a holiday homecoming worth celebrating; a chance to experience an old-fashioned Christmas in Cincinnati with your kids.
Visit the Shillito’s Elves this season at 6940 Madisonville Rd. in Mariemont and downtown at The Foundry, 50 W. Fifth St. in Cincinnati.