A visit from Pekin’s Ghost of Christmas Past . . .

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Dec. 2011 before the launch of this weblog.

A visit from Pekin’s Ghost of Christmas Past . . .

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

If you’ve ever wondered what Christmas celebrations were like in Pekin way back when, an old handbill from 1879 in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room Collection can be a way to summon a visit from Pekin’s Ghost of Christmas Past.

In large, bold letters, the handbill announces a “holiday concert” to be presented Friday evening, Dec. 26, 1879, at Empire Hall, one of Pekin’s earliest theaters or concert halls. Empire Hall was on the second floor of a building in the 200 block of Court Street – so that should give you an idea of just how long Pekin has been celebrating Christmas downtown.

This 1879 handbill, donated to the Pekin Public Library by late local historian Fred W. Soady Jr. and now displayed in the library’s Local History Room, opens a window on Pekin’s Christmas traditions of long ago.

The holiday concert was a three-scene Christmas cantata entitled, “Santa Claus!” which was performed “by the members of the Baptist Sunday School, assisted by LEADING SINGERS OF THE CITY,” as the handbill states. Directing the cantata were Mrs. and Mrs. W. F. Henry, while Miss Josie Goodheart directed two silent tableaux vivants that were presented at the end of the first scene and at the conclusion of the cantata. The price of admission was 25 cents for adults and teens, and 10 cents for children under 12.

Lining both sides of the handbill are advertisements by the local merchants who sponsored the cantata, offering “the greatest bargains in holiday goods in the city,” “Christmas candies, nuts and fruits,” “holiday goods, toys, notions, etc.” In that respect, Christmas in 1879 wasn’t any different from Christmas today.

Also advertised are “1000 cans of oysters for Christmas!” and “oysters in every style.” Though they a part of a traditional Christmas dinner – for Christians used to abstain from meat during the penitential season of Advent, and so Christmas Eve dinners would feature seafood – oysters are probably not as popular these days as ham or turkey.

Much about the cantata also would be familiar to us today, but other things would be a little strange. The cantata tells the story of six children waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, but the handbill says nothing of Santa’s reindeer, who made their first appearance in Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Also absent from the cantata were Santa’s elves and the toy workshop at the North Pole, which are later developments of the Santa Claus story.

Instead, the audience was treated to a character called the Frost King, as well as three Christmas fairies and Santa’s two attendants, dwarfs named Drako and Krako. Also prominent in the cantata were six goddesses, representing Dreams, Mirth, Joy, Peace, Love and Hope. It was the task of the Goddess of Dreams, played by Mrs. James Sholl, to sing a lullaby, “Now the tiny lids must close,” to ensure the six children were fast asleep before Santa’s arrival.

It wasn’t long before the 19th century’s reimagining of the Catholic St. Nicholas as the “jolly old elf” Santa Claus would take on a life of its own, more secular than religious, all but divorced from its Christian origins. This 1879 cantata, however, bears an unmistakably Christian stamp: the very first solo, sung by Miss Fannie Miller, is, “Where the Shepherds Watched by Night,” and the cantata concludes with the chorus, “Our kind and loving Father, / A glad and joyful throng / We lift our hearts and voices / To Thee in grateful song.”

A final bit of local history trivia: playing one of the children in the cantata was Fred W. Soady Sr., born Sept. 5, 1867, whose biography appears in the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties,” page 696. Some past “From the Local History Room” columns have featured quotes from a 1960 paper of Pekin’s early history written by Fred W. Soady Jr., grandson of the child actor of 1879.

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