By Kathi Kresol
The lighting of the Christmas tree during Stroll on State is the official start to Rockford’s Holiday Season. This event brings the holidays to life for thousands through displays of lights, good food, and markets to shop. Entire families brave all kinds of weather to see the lighting of the tree and share in the celebration.
This is a contrast to celebrations of the holidays in Rockford’s past. According to an article from 1942 in the Register Republic, Rockford did not celebrate the holidays during the early days. The article quoted Miss Mary Bigelow who was the head of the Rockford Public Library during the time. She stated that “it was due to the fact that during that era most Rockford residents were from New England where the Christmas celebrations were regarded with suspicion.”
Further research produced an article from the Morning Star dated December 24, 1911 that explained Miss Bigelow’s comment. It stated that while some Rockford citizens were of Puritan ancestors and did not believe in reveling the day, there were many of German stock that delighted in celebrating in the tradition of their homeland.
The article continues with a description of the first Christmas tree that was in the home of Rev. Augustus H. Conant who was the pastor of the Unitarian Church from 1857 to 1861. The Reverend used the tree in his home to “bestow happiness” in the families whose children attended the church. It was decorated with handmade ornaments of transparent bags filled with candy and fruit donated by the ladies of the church. The tree also included strings of popcorn and cranberries and was light by small candles. The families all donated gifts for the children that included dolls, sleds, skates, mittens and scarfs. The article mentioned that during this simpler time the gifts that were chosen gave the receiver comfort during the long days of winter.
The families of the church gathered in the little home on the corner of Green and Church Streets for the festivities. The families all brought dishes of food to pass and the anticipation of the children grew as they awaited the arrival of Santa Claus. The jolly old elf finally made his appearance to hand out the gifts to the children saving the fruits and candies for last. The popcorn though used as a decoration was also devoured.
Rev. Conant served his congregation until 1861 when the call came for men to join the fight for the Civil War. He became the Chaplain for the 19th Illinois Infantry Volunteers. Rev. Conant died of pneumonia brought on by exposure and exhaustion on February 8, 1863 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The first public tree in Rockford came in 1913. It was displayed in front of a community center organized by the Rockford Woman’s Club called the Montague House. The Rockford Woman’s Club was granted permission by the Rockford Park District Board to use a house on Rockford’s south side. The house was sold in 1957 and is now used for the Zion Baptist Church at 604 Salter Avenue.
The center opened in 1913 and offered activities to immigrant families that were settling in Rockford. These activities varied through the years but included sports, music and art classes and educational programs. The ethnic groups included Italians, Lithuanians, Greek , Germans, Irish, Jewish, Swedish, Poles and African Americans.
L.W. Thompson was in charge of the Montague House in 1913. He really wanted to make Christmas a community event and came up with the idea of a Christmas tree display. Thompson approached several organizations to assist with the project. He contacted the Rockford Electric Company to donate the lighting of the tree and the women from the Rockford Woman’s Club helped gathered funds for presents for the children. Soon everything was in place except for the tree itself. Everyone involved must have begun to panic when there was no offer for a tree. Finally, at the last minute on December 20, Mr. John Andrews offered a 20-foot tree from his house on School Street.
The tree was moved on a wagon to its new home where it took “10 men and about 100 willing youngsters” to hoist the tree into place. The Register Gazette article from the day stated “A Christmas spirit is enveloping all of Rockford.”
Over 1,000 people crowded the area to help celebrate with the families of the Montague House. There was a choir that sang Christmas songs as the tree was lit for the first time. A cheer went up from the crowd that could be heard over most of the downtown area.
It was in the vision of people such as August Conant, the Rockford Woman’s Club, and L.W. Thompson that helped start the Rockford tradition of celebrating this time of year as a community. The article from 1911 captures the thought elegantly, “the fruits of love whose seeds were sown through the influence of the tree and in many thoughtful acts have been blossoming and maturing seeds for the bettering of children and for all mankind through the years.”