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Christmas Past in Indiana County

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, a favorite novel read by many at this time of year. Indiana County has a special connection to Mr. Dickens, as he traveled through Indiana County on March 27 and 28, 1842, on a canal boat. Just a year later in 1843, his novel “A Christmas Carol” was published. In the spirit of his “Ghost of Christmas Past,” let’s follow our own “Ghost of Indiana County Christmas Past” and see what Indiana County was doing at Christmas time through the years.

During the early years of the County, it seems that December 25 was regarded as just another day as the newspapers have little to no mention of Christmas. In The American, Indiana County’s first newspaper, the following account is found in 1827:

Attention Marksmen, a fine large stall-fed ox supposed to weigh about 1,000 lbs. Will be shot for at Indiana, on Tuesday, the 25th day of December instant. Price of ox $42. The place of the match, will be fixed on the morning of said day by the venturers. Amatures (six) of the rifle, and lovers of Roasted Beef and the whiskey of the Country and neighboring towns are invited to attend. A SHOOTER

A political meeting supporting William Henry Harrison for President was held on Christmas Day 1839 at the first courthouse. That same day Thomas McCrea, a surveyor, laid out a new village named West Lebanon for John White and William Kier, owners of the land. On Christmas Eve 1845 another meeting was held at the courthouse to advocate and promote the construction of a railroad through the valley of Black Lick Creek. And on Christmas Day 1866, the Indiana Weekly Register was published just as on any other day.

Since the majority of the county’s early settlers were of Scotch and Scotch-Irish ancestry, the observance of Christmas was slow to take hold. One German resident, Jonathan Row, editor of the Indiana Register, wrote in 1852 an item titled “Christmas.” He spoke of ”Kriss Krinkle” and his deposits “in the stockings, hats, caps, and various other receptacles which were suspended above the door, in the chimney, and divers [sic] other places.”

The Ghost of Christmas Past stops us in December 1861, as the ladies of Indiana gathered and prepared food for Christmas dinners of local soldiers who were serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. This food included hams, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, partridges, pheasants, cakes, canned fruit, and apples. The ladies took the food to the Indiana Railroad depot (the site of the current courthouse at Eighth and Philadelphia) on December 20, “cooked, ready for the table.” Later a resolution of thanks for the Christmas dinners was published. The men of Company B, 11th Reserves, celebrated on December 27 when the shipment was received. Three cheers were given for the ladies. Such bright spots in the life of a soldier were the exception rather than the rule. Matthias Manner of Rayne Township wrote in his diary on December 25, 1863: “Was a beautiful Christmas Day - nothing of interest transpired - more than I saw two fights. For breakfast we had black coffee, soft bread and stewed apples. For dinner some apple dumplings and other dainties.”

An 1864 news item told of a Christmas tree being set up in the home of James Turner and two Christmas tableaux were presented at a meeting of the Wickersham Literary Society; one was of Santa Claus. Such observances were rather novel for the editor who wrote highly approving the custom, but sadly noting “Perhaps in our community this custom is not so well observed as it might be.”

Gradually, the joyful spirit of the holiday season spread to all classes of society and by 1872, the Presbyterians in Marion Center, who were known as being “strait-laced” had a Christmas tree with “100 wax tapers” and in one of the of the ornaments was “a roll of Greenbacks” for Rev. John C. Caruthers, the minister.

We briefly go through Christmas Eve 1881, as the Mechanicsburg Band (now Brush Valley) gave a “Grand Concert” in the Indiana Baptist Church.

Our Ghost of Christmas Past takes us down through the years and opens the curtain on 1886: “Devers, Hill and Neal wish to inform the boys and girls of Blairsville, that they will be pleased to have them all call at their place of business between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. Christmas and be made happy.” By this time Santa Claus had come into his own, as we see in Devers, Hill and Neal’s advertisement a week earlier: “Office of Santa Claus, North Pole, December 1886. This is to certify that I have personally inspected the Holiday Stock of the undersigned, and recommended it as the best…Signed Santa Claus.”

For many years it was a delightful custom of local merchants to give “treats” to boys and girls on Christmas morning. In 1887, J.M. Harvey of Blairsville distributed 1,000 half-pound packages of candy to the younger generation of Blairsville. Other Blairsville merchants gave picture cards and various small gifts. In 1904, E.H. Sutton in Indiana gave each local child a cup and saucer, a custom which continued into the 1920s.

The following is a peek into an old-fashioned family Christmas in 1897: The children and grandchildren of William Anderson to the number of 35 met at the home of A.S. Crawford of Parkwood on Christmas. At noon, a delicious dinner was served and in the afternoon the little tots were treated with a grand surprise. The parlor doors were thrown open and the little ones gazed on a brilliant Christmas tree laden with gifts for all. A real Santa Claus unloaded the tree and presented gifts to the delighted guests. The evening was devoted to social games and amusements.

By 1904, Christmas trees were being sold in Indiana in front of local stores for 25 cents and up. This was before the time of commercial growing, so the trees likely came from the nearby woods.

In 1911, the Blairsville Elks sponsored a Christmas Night minstrel show which was said to have drawn “the biggest audience that Einstein’s Opera House ever held,” an estimated 1,300 people filled every available bit of space in the pit, balcony, and gallery, as well as the main floor.

In 1914, Indiana had a 36-foot community Christmas tree erected in front of Brilhart’s store on Philadelphia Street between Fifth and Sixth. It stood on a 16x24 foot platform erected by John Klingensmith, a local carpenter, and his men. The tree had been cut on the Henry farm near Grace Church and was probably brought in on a streetcar. It was decorated with nearly 100 electric lights topped with a large five-pointed star. On Christmas Eve the folks of Indiana gathered around the tree to sing carols, and the Indiana Military Band played Christmas selections.

Christmas seals made their debut in Indiana County in 1915. Sales were conducted by the New Century Club, Mrs. Harry S. Christy, president. These first seals had the Red Cross emblem. Total sales were only $2.17.

In 1925, J.M. Stewart & Co. advertised “Wheel toys for Christmas” pointing out that they were “gifts that provided healthful exercise as well as enjoyment.” Roller skates were $1.25 to $2.25 a pair; coaster wagons $3.50 to $11.00; “Kiddie Kars” $1.25 to $1.50; and velocipedes (tricycles) $10 to $16.50.

Even the Depression did not dampen the local Christmas spirit. In 1930, the Indiana Post Office broke all previous records, handling 327,380 letters and cards, and 6,000 parcels since December 18, according to Postmaster Harry Borland. In 1932, a Christmas party for children at the Ritz Theater (later the Manos) attracted an overflow crowd of 2,300 children on the afternoon of December 24. Santa Claus greeted each child personally but ran out of treats after giving out 1,300. Some 600 of the children were taken to the Indiana Theater. A Western movie was shown in both places.

In 1938, Santa Claus came to Indiana on the B&O Railroad at the invitation of Troutman’s Store and was greeted at the station by a large crowd of children. Afterward, he took his place in a parade headed by the Indiana Community Band.

Sam Dible of Shelocta and Murray C. Stewart of Homer City began planting Christmas trees around 1917-18. Mr. Stewart was the first president of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association when it was organized in 1943. By 1956, the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers Association was formed and began to promote Indiana County as the “Christmas Tree Capital.”

We will leave it to the “Ghost of Christmas Future” to reveal what the future of Christmas in Indiana County holds. Until then, come enjoy the museum’s current exhibits - the Indiana Art Association’s Annual Open Arts Show, and the Toys of Christmas Past, Toys from the 1950s and 1960s. As a reminder the Historical Society will be closed December 24, 2022 through January 2, 2023. We will reopen for business on January 3, 2023 at 9:00 a.m.

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