The hustle and bustle of Christmas is not new to Villisca. One hundred forty-six years ago, just like today, there were many events surrounding the holiday—from dances and dinners, to buying and giving gifts, to church going and school programs. The following reports of how Villisca celebrated Christmas were found on just one page of the Villisca Weekly Review (Jan. 3, 1873 which covered the 1872 Christmas season).
Setting the scene were these items, making it obvious that the holiday season of 1872/73 was an old-fashioned white one.
“Sleigh-riding—A few old-fashioned sleighs have been visible on our streets the past few days. One man determined to have a glide over the “fleecy snow” went dashing by with a pair of mules hitched to a large hand-sleigh with a dry goods box on it. The sleighing is very passable for those who are prepared to enjoy it.”
And further emphasizing the white Christmas theme although this paper was published right after New Year’s:
“The mail train was stuck in a snow drift somewhere east of this town last night and was some six or eight hours behind schedule.”
Advertisements selling goods for the holiday were still to be found in the news columns:
“Schoomaker & Lyon are this week receiving a new lot of goods for the holiday season; call and see them.”
A round up of some of the holiday excitement described what formal Christmas celebrations were like:
“Christmas Eve Entertainment—The Christmas Eve entertainment at the M.E. Church consisting of a tree, music, speeches, etc., was altogether an enjoyable affair. The building was brilliantly lighted and tastefully decorated. At the further end as you entered was a huge Christmas tree, loaded with presents which made many a black eye glisten and dance. Rev. Smith spoke for about ten minutes, alluding to the tree and its symbolic significance and winding up with a little speech directly to the children. After this the presents were distributed, to the number of 500 or more. Music was interspersed during the whole evening, making the exercises more pleasant. All went home feeling exceedingly well and thankful to the man who invented Christmas.”
A Christmas Tree, like the one described in this article, was not the Christmas tree that you find in your home, church or mall in 2018. The Christmas Tree of the mid- to late-1800s was an event, not a tree, even though the event centered around a fresh-cut evergreen. Everyone in the congregation brought their family’s gifts to the church and tied them on the branches of the communal tree. The kind ladies of each church always knew which families were struggling, and provided gifts for those children and parents who would have been unable to participate in gift giving themselves. Of course, those were the days when children were happy to receive just one gift each. The “Christmas Tree” seems to have been it as far as gift-giving went in those long ago Christmases. However, the Review’s columns would lead one to believe that it was also the custom to give gifts at New Year’s, in those early years of the town’s existence.
There were only two churches in town in 1872, and the Baptist Church—like the Methodist—also had a Christmas Eve “Christmas Tree.” The Baptists also had a visit from Santa Claus!
“CHRISTMAS TREE AT THE BAPTIST CHURCH—On Christmas Eve the children and friends of the Baptist Sabbath School met at the church and enjoyed a most pleasant reunion. In the rear end of the church stood a most beautiful tree, reaching to the ceiling and weighted down from top to foot with presents for the happy throng there assembled. The presents were of real value, embracing almost every variety from a nice watch to a china doll. Santa Claus was there and displayed even more than his usual liberality. Elder Roe and lady were generously remembered and both their library and wardrobe replenished. Miss Stella Childs, as organist of the Sunday School, received a beautiful pair of gold bracelets from the school. Mr. McCartney, chorister; Mr. Schoomaker, Superintendent; the teachers, and indeed all, were made happy by the tokens of esteem received. The concert, which preceded the distribution of the presents, embraced the finest music. The recitations of Miss Stella Childs and Mrs. Allen, and the exercises of the little ones were the best that could have been anticipated and afforded most evident pleasure to the listeners. The house was full, and all seemed to regret that Christmas comes but once a year…”
Christmas Day arrived and was marked by visiting friends and relatives and enjoying as lavish dinner as each family could afford. Sometimes the main course itself was a Christmas gift as seen in one of the following entries.
“C. W. Sharples and lady spent Christmas in Burlington.”
“Christmas Turkey—To the M.E. Sunday School is due our most grateful thanks for the fine turkey which graced our board on Christmas day. We have many highly esteemed friends in the school, some are mere acquaintances, others still entire strangers; but to each and all we make sincere acknowledgement of the favor which will ever be remembered with pleasure.” (From the Review’s editor)
But Christmas Night was another story. It was a night of celebration and cheer.
“The dance given by Kay’s band on Christmas Night was a complete success.”
This dance was held in Villisca, presumably in one of the several halls available for hire. Kay’s band that sponsored this event was a local one which was often hired throughout the area to provide music for all kinds of events and celebrations. Mr. Edison had not yet invented his phonograph, so when music was required or desired, one hired a band. Almost all the local towns had their own bands.
“H. H. McCartney, our fellow townsman, was down to Clarinda on Christmas night to assist in the grand concert given by the Clarinda brass band.”
And finally, an explanation of why this Christmas news was late. (Christmas was on Wednesday that year. The issue for the week before Christmas has been lost over the years and unfortunately it isn’t to be found in the electronic archives.)
“No Paper Last week—Agreeable with a time-honored custom among country newspapers, we issued no paper during Christmas week, and the entire force, editorial and typographical, took a rest. Our subscribers will lose nothing thereby, as we give them fifty-two numbers for $1.50.”
What a bargain!
Wishing Merry Christmas to all.