Once upon a time at Christmas, Philadelphia families mobbed Market Street, drawn by the animated window displays at Gimbels, the Enchanted Village at Lit Bros., and the monorail at Wanamakers.

And at Strawbridge & Clothier, they would have waited forever to see the Dickens Christmas Village, a replica of 1843 London with intricate scenes retelling the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his eventual awakening to the spirit of generosity.

Most of the downtown department stores are gone now and with them much of the glitter that was Christmas past. But the Wanamakers building remains, reborn as Macy's. Within its walls, the pipe organ is still played, the Nutcracker light show blazes on, and all the inhabitants of the Dickens Village are at home on the third floor.

Yesterday, Barbara Gunsser and her brood were among the families who returned to Market Street for Christmas.

"We wouldn't miss it," said Gunsser, 62, who grew up at Kensington and Allegheny and now lives in Somerton.

As a young mother, Gunsser said, she introduced her daughter, Colleen, to Marley's ghost and Tiny Tim. Now a grandmother of three, Gunsser said there was less to see, with only one department store remaining, and even that doesn't have a toy department.

"I remember when Wanamakers had a supervised shopping area where children could buy presents for their parents and get them gift-wrapped," Gunsser said. "At least I think it was Wanamakers."

And Colleen, now 33, remembers riding the monorail that circled close to the ceiling of the store's toy department.

After a series of sales and name changes, Macy's owned both the Wanamakers and Strawbridge's companies. Macy's shut Strawbridge's in May 2006, and by Christmas, it had the Dickens Village in operation at its 13th and Market location.

"It's all here," said Macy's spokesman Maurice O'Connell, "all the scenes in their original order."

The village was made in 1984 when the Strawbridge family commissioned artists Ray Daub and his former partner, Mary Wimberley, to create a centerpiece Christmas display. Daub had vivid memories of his family gathering to read A Christmas Carol every Dec. 24, so he made the Dickens tale the focus of his animatronic walk-through.

The artists came together again to restore the exhibit just before it was moved.

"I thought the characters looked really good for their age," said Beth Ann Corr, 38, who was raised in Doylestown and came to town with her mother and Nana every Christmas to see the stores.

"We'd get all dressed up and have lunch in the Crystal Tea Room at Wanamakers," said Corr, who lives in Mount Airy now. She introduced her 3-year-old, Ronan, to the Dickens exhibit yesterday, and he was properly enchanted.

"He's my excuse to do all these things again," Corr said.

Lit Bros.' Enchanted Village, by the way, was at the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia until 2000, when it moved to the Please Touch Museum. Five or six of the scenes are on display at the Please Touch now through Dec. 31, a museum spokesperson said, but they are scattered throughout the museum, instead of laid out as a walk-through.

On the first floor of Macy's, business still slows down every hour on the hour for the story of the Nutcracker, displayed in a dazzle of lighted figures. Grandmothers still snag the best seats, in the shoe department, as children sit cross-legged on the carpet, necks craned, mouths open like those of baby birds.

The show starts with a short concert of tunes on the pipe organ John Wanamaker brought in 1911 from the St. Louis World's Fair, and a sing-along is led by singers in Victorian garb.

"The light show is shorter now," lamented Lynn Thompson, who grew up in Bala Cynwyd and lives in Florida now.

"There's no waterfall at the end of the light show, and it's narrated by Julie Andrews instead of John Facenda," Thompson said. "But it's better than nothing."

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com.
Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder