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Hinsdale, Illinois |

Published Dec. 22, 2011                                               

Taking a trip down Christmas memory lane

Hinsdale History Museum maintains vibrant connections with the village's holiday heritage

By Ken Knutson 

   Ever wonder how Hinsdaleans got their Christmas on generations ago?
   The Hinsdale Historical Society’s Hinsdale History Museum is a veritable treasure trove of the village’s heritage, with an impressive archive offering glimpses into the past, including holiday seasons gone by.
   Anne Swenson, museum director, said she was surprised at how many of the newspaper entries from 70 or more years ago would not seem out of place today.
   “I thought that there would be a lot more that had changed,” she said. “There’s still a sense of community that you have now and you still have the Christmas Walk and the downtown things that the village puts on.”
   There is a notable difference, however, in the length of the run-up to Christmas between then and now.
   “People started their celebrations in December instead of November and October, like we do today,” Swenson said.
   Step back in time through these accounts culled from the museum’s collection:

• In 1898, three Kimbell families gathered in town for a 2 p.m. dinner before going into Chicago for a party with more than 100 guests.
   “The evening was spent with vocal and instrumental music, recitations by a number of the little ones and dancing until 10 p.m.”

• The same year, several English families met at the Hemshell home in town “to enjoy Christmas in true English style.” Following a morning pigeon shoot in windy conditions, it was time for Christmas dinner.
   “After a substantial dinner, the Yule logs were piled high in the old-fashioned fireplaces, and dancing and other amusements were kept up until after midnight.”

• The Hinsdale Bargain Store at 210 First St. housed a “Christmas Store” in the basement.
   “The Christmas Store is filled to overflowing with gifts for every member of the family, a treasure house of distinctive merchandise — the kind of goods you will be glad to give and to receive,” read a 1923 advertisement.

• Hinsdale’s downtown debuted its first Christmas decorations on Dec. 18, 1926. Six men took most of a week to string 3,500 feet of wire and attach 700 sockets for the red, white and green bulbs along Hinsdale Avenue and Washington and First streets, courtesy of business owners.
   “First each socket had to be soldered, taped into place and properly insulated,” according to the paper. “Of course (the merchants) hope to be paid back in added profits by drawing more holiday shoppers.”

• By 1929, efforts to Jerry-rig storefront displays apparently had gotten a bit dicey.
   “Merchants planning to use electric lights or appliances for decorative purposes in Christmas window displays are asked to get in touch with the city electrical department before doing so,” the blurb read.
   “ ‘Installation of systems by unskilled or unreliable workmen and without supervision by an electrical inspector is a very unsafe practice,’ ” the city inspector was quoted as saying.

• In 1934, the village sponsored a Christmas display contest for residents and business owners to promote beautification, offering $25 to the winners. Judging  was to take place between Dec. 24 and 31, and quality would be ranked above quantity.
   “Prizes will not necessarily go to the person with largest display. They will be judged on their artistic effect, not size,” said F.W. Martin, Hinsdale’s superintendent of utilities.

• Also in 1934, an editorial encouraged residents to seek fellowship on Christmas.
   “Invite your friends to come over at any time during the day and spend part of the day, yourself, calling on your friends. Then you will find that Christmas means a great deal more to you if you spread a little of the Christmas cheer yourself,” it read.

• The following year’s editorial took aim at the materialism creeping into the celebration.
   “If the giving of gifts is all Christmas means to you, at least you are better off than he who only worries about what he is going to receive. But the giving and receiving of gifts is just secondary. Be more like the child who gets more kick out of a 10-cent toy than he does out of a $10 suit of clothes,” it read. “Bring back the Christmas of old, with Santa Claus, a smiling, generous, gay and big person and not the grinning-type, gloomy and small person that he’s getting to be.”

• In 1935, first prize in the display contest was reduced to $20. In 1936, it was discontinued due to lack of participation.
   “However, many citizens and businessmen are planning to decorate. The Christmas for 1936 will not be lacking in any of the usual impressiveness,” the writer opined.

• From 1935-38, an annual Christmas songfest too place around the community tree near Memorial Hall on Christmas Eve night. Festivities opened with a Christmas pageant at 6:30 “o’clock”, followed by carol singing with organ accompaniment. It also had a charitable dimension.
   “Boys and girls are asked to bring cookies to the pageant to be given out Christmas day to families who otherwise would not have such delicacies,” read a promotion for the event.

• Christmas stories by middle and high schoolers were regularly published during the season along with letters to Santa from elementary students. First grade Madison School student Rosemary Newman shared her family wish list in 1935.
   “Dear Santa, please give me a Shirley Temple doll. Please bring my little brother a stoplight, high-tops and a knife. Please bring my big brother a piano and his wife, a set of dishes. Bring my mother a coffee pot, please. That’s all.”

   Anne Swenson said children, in particular, really get a kick out of visiting the museum this time of year to see and hear what a Victorian-era holiday was like.
   “It’s really fun when we get the kids in here around Christmas so they can see the short tree on the table instead of the big tree, and they get to learn a little bit more about how things were different,” she said. “ ‘Yes, you only had four presents. You didn’t have 20.’ ”


  Making a Difference is a yearlong partnership between
The Hinsdalean and the Hinsdale Historical Society, which works to collect, preserve and promote the village’s history and its architecture.



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