Postcard made frompages of book of  Marshall Field’s Christmas trees.Courtesy of Sallie Posniak

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For generations of starry-eyed children, beholding the splendor of the Marshall Field’s Christmas tree was the ultimate holiday experience.

A look behind the scenes at the creation of the tree does not dim the glow of those childhood memories. Sallie Posniak never tires of telling the story.

Ms. Posniak, now 82, spent 41 years at Field’s, where she participated in and at last directed the annual design and creation of 5,000 handmade ornaments for the holiday tree.

Each tree, she says, was “a whole year in the making.” Planning began when the current year’s tree had been installed and, sitting at a table beneath it, the two Design Department heads set the theme for the following year.

Then came four months of research, followed by time to design the ornaments and source, price, and purchase the necessary materials. Production began in May and took six months.

For this young woman from Appleton, Wis., Marshall Field’s was an enviable destination. Ms. Posniak’s high school art teacher told his students as much when he brought them to Chicago to see just two institutions: the School of the Art Institute and Marshall Field and Co.

“For an artist, Marshall Field’s is one of the best places to work,” he told the class. “It is renowned the world over.”

Ms. Posniak came to Chicago on a scholarship to Ray-Vogue College of Design and earned a degree in commercial art. But, following the advice of an instructor who said she “should be in fine arts,” she says she enrolled at the School of the Art Institute, again with a scholarship.  

Upon graduation, she landed a job at Field’s – as an elevator operator. It was 1954. She wore heels, a uniform, and a look of envy when she ferried people to the 13th floor. She says she watched them head for the Display Department with “eyes open like a tiny child.”    

Eight months later, Ms. Posniak rode to the 13th floor and presented her portfolio to Homer Sharp, Vice President of the Design Division. “Why didn’t you come earlier?” he asked her. Both he and the Division Head, Annette Lewin, would become Ms. Posniak’s mentors. “I don’t know how I was so lucky,” she says.

When Ms. Lewin died in 1983, Ms. Posniak stepped into her role. But she started out as an elf or “orny,” store slang for ornament maker. The six elves hired to work six days a week from June until the weekend before Thanksgiving were usually, like her, recent art school grads. “Those who were really good got permanent positions in the store,” Ms. Posniak says.

With her first promotion, Ms. Posniak began designing escalator cases. She and one assistant conceived monthly displays for the glass cases at the top of the escalator on the floor with children’s merchandise. The assignment allowed her a great deal of artistic freedom. “You could be so creative,” she says. “Thank God for Homer and Annette. They let me go crazy.”

All of which helped prepare her to take over Ms. Lewin’s job. She and a staff of 10 – four permanent and six seasonal employees – sculpted most of the ornaments from Styrofoam, first carving the shapes with knives of various sizes, then sanding and painting them before affixing fabric and trim with hot glue. To emphasize the soaring height of the tree, the ornaments ranged in size from 18 inches for the bottom limbs to 5.5 to 6 inches for the top. “I can’t tell you how much fun it was,” Ms. Posniak says. “You could let your mind go wild.”    

The real trees that had presided over the wood-paneled Walnut Room each year since the 1930s were replaced by a safer artificial one in 1963. But until then, Ms. Posniak says, tradition guided the selection, cutting, transport, and installation of the Great Tree. Tree hunters scouted the Wisconsin North Woods for the 75-foot evergreen they would later size to a perfect 45 feet. They felled the tree and then dragged it by horse and sledge to a special gondola railroad car for the trip to Chicago.

One night in late November, Ms. Posniak remembers, the city streets were closed and the revolving doors at the entrance to the State Street store removed. The tree was carried down the main aisle of the store, raised through the well with rigging, and pulled in to the Walnut Room through the seventh-floor windows.

A four-level scaffolding was quickly erected around the tree, and boxes of ornaments in four sizes placed at the appropriate levels. Standing on the scaffolding with the crew from Chalet who had installed the tree, the elves directed the placement of the ornaments: “One inch to the right and an inch higher.”

In 48 hours, the tree was trimmed. “We worked till we finished,” Ms. Posniak says.

Two of her favorite trees developed from storewide promotions. For the British promotion in 1986, her department created a Victorian tree, rich in lace and burgundy velvet and lit with 10,000 bulbs that had been dipped in pale, golden-orange glass paint to create a warm glow.

For the French promotion in 1989 they made santons, the “little saints” that populate nativity scenes in the Provence region of France. They crafted individual townspeople in great detail – chimney sweeps, fishermen, apple sellers, and washerwomen, all bearing the tools of their trade – and made 4-foot-tall moving figures to go around the base of the tree.      

Together, Ms. Posniak and Mr. Sharp began creating a memory book even before retiring from Field’s. Each page is like an elaborate Christmas card, with a photo of a tree framed in gold and delicate lace cut from paper doilies. Though its spine is cracked and bits of lace are coming unglued, the book is witness to the joy of designing the trees.

The last time Ms. Posniak saw the tree, Marshall Field’s had become Macy’s. She was “disappointed,” she says. “It was ‘commercial.’ Ours was a labor of love, the ornaments made by hand.”

The reporter wondered if, after the hours she spent trimming the Marshall Field’s tree, Ms. Posniak had a Christmas tree at home.

“I’m Jewish,” she said. Then she added, in a voice filled with wonder, “This little Jewish girl had the biggest, most beautiful tree of all.”