click to enlarge Christmas 100 years ago
John Brown Dixon of Springfield in front of his family's Christmas tree in December 1926.

In 1923, the holidays followed a year that saw the lingering aftermath of World War I and the hint of the next, as well as other cultural changes. America's soldiers finally pulled out of a defeated Germany and our country adjusted to a new president, Calvin Coolidge, after Warren Harding died. Adolf Hitler's rise began that November after he was arrested for attempting to take over the German government and the U.S. attorney general made a controversial move declaring it legal for women to wear pants. All this while Americans continued to deal with the prohibition of alcohol, some better than others.

In Springfield, things were looking up, according to the Dec. 25 Illinois State Journal editorial:

"We have good reason to mourn (this year's) departure, for it has been good to all of us here in this garden spot of the world, this Eden of the Twentieth Century." Internationally renowned local poet Vachel Lindsay seemed to disagree in his poem published in the paper that day, in which he called Springfield the "City of my Discontent."

Gift-givers didn't see it that way, at least not the day before Christmas. The Journal reported it was a heavy shopping day throughout the city. Local stores had been advertising their wares, such as A. Dirksen and Son's "fancy pillows, table scarves, hearth rugs, doll buggies, and cedar chests." The hearth rugs were the cheapest of all, starting at 75 cents, while the cedar chests were for big spenders at $10 to $45 apiece.

Boys' "high-cut storm boots" were a relative bargain at Klaholt's on the south side of the square for $1.25 and up, while The Music Shop at 221 S. Fifth St. offered the latest in listening pleasure – a Victrola, no price listed. As my dad used to say, if you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it. (According to Victor Records' website, the latest Victrola models cost at least $150 that year).

As shoppers filled their baskets downtown, local movie-star-wannabes auditioned at the Illinois State Register newspaper offices. "Movie Producer (Joseph Maddern) Here Today to Meet Persons Interested in Playing a Part in a Real Film" declared the Register on Dec. 24. The film was produced by the paper and Springfield's Majestic Theatre. Fifty people would be cast for the locally filmed production to be called She Would be a Vamp. The New York Public Library describes vamps as "promiscuous but emotionally cold women," who were big in popular culture back then.

Area country clubs and churches prepared for their holiday dinners, pageants and sermons while Santa gave "candy, fruit, and nuts" to the "crippled and tubercular children" at St. John's Tuberculosis Sanitarium near Riverton on Dec. 23, according to the next day's Register. (The complex is now home to the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis).

Thanks to the "Personal" columns of the local papers, the whole town knew where some Springfieldians were traveling to spend their holidays and with whom, or who was visiting those that stayed home. The "Sufferers" columns detailed who was in the hospital, and often, for what malady. There were no medical privacy laws then. Getting your appendix out? Everybody knew.

On Christmas Day, the Journal published holiday greetings from former residents who had moved away. One was philanthropist and Sears mogul Julius Rosenwald, born here in 1862 in Lincoln's neighborhood, who reminisced about earlier days: "My memory goes back to the time when we had no paved streets and when the wagon wheels sunk in up to the hubs..."

Another was reporter Octavia Roberts, who recalled holidays here: "For me, Christmas must ever mean a square with a court house in the center, a municipal Christmas tree on its lawn, the whole closed in by stores whose show windows are brave with holly and evergreen and set out with their most tempting wares. Around the square the townspeople rush, on last errands, and hundreds of farmers and their wives mingle with them, their arms heavy with bundles."

On Christmas Eve in 1923, that charm remained, reported the Dec. 25 Journal. "Last night, throughout the city, Christmas trees, gay with light and tinsel were visible in innumerable homes." Good Fellows, Salvation Army and other charities had made sure that "there was none in want."

Christmas came and went without snow that year, according to the next day's Journal. While many were still merry, the day brought grief to some. A local girl was shot that afternoon while trying roller skates Santa brought her. In Williamson and Franklin counties, 75 men were arrested during a violent raid on Christmas Eve for selling illegal booze. And "many lives" around the country were taken by the bootleggers' "poison hooch," according to the paper.

It was the Roaring Twenties, after all.

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