Rochester Christmases Past, Present Center on Community
From the simple celebrations 140 years ago to Lagniappe and Big Bright Lights Show of today, it's been a wonderful life in Rochester during the holidays.
At Christmas time, Rochester reminds me of Bedford Falls – the fictional small town in the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart as hometown hero George Bailey.
Both are mill towns with Victorian-era houses and a main street where running into a familiar face is almost guaranteed, and receiving a cheerful "hello" or "Merry Christmas" from a downtown merchant makes the day a bit brighter.
That's the way it is in a small community – the hustle and bustle of the season is tempered with a friendly face or two and an abundance of good cheer from friends and neighbors.
Over the past 140 years, Rochester has observed Christmas in many ways, but with one common theme – community. It's always been about gathering together as a community to welcome Christmas and spread the joy of the season.
A Stoney Creek Christmas
Before big bright lights, parades and gigantic gingerbread houses, Rochester celebrated with simple Christmas trees, sing-alongs and neighborhood gatherings. People gave homemade gifts, served sweet treats and delighted in adorning their homes with candles, fruit and evergreen sprigs.
In the 1860s, Christmas was a festive affair in Rochester's Stoney Creek Village. Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, then a young girl on her family's village farm, spent all year making Christmas gifts for village children.
"My egg money was not sufficient to buy even one 'store' present," Van Hoosen wrote in Petticoat Surgeon," published in 1947. "The rag bag was productive; worn out stockings supplied bits of yarn; the creek bed was a treasury of shells, bits of broken glass and colored stones. My creative genius was restrained by only one thing," she continued, "it must be possible to label the present and hang it on the tree."
The tree was for the entire village. It was cut down and put up in the Van Hoosen's tool house, where villagers gathered to celebrate the season.
". . . the hired men searched the woods for a nice evergreen tree, and cut cedar boughs to decorate the walls" wrote Van Hoosen. "These boughs were held in place with tin stars fashioned out of oyster cans and the tree was wreathed with strings of cranberries and festoons of popcorn."
Van Hoosen's sister, Alice, distributed gifts to the children, while her mother served Christmas cider and doughnuts.
"Alice, dressed as Santa, cut the presents from the gift-burdened tree," wrote Van Hoosen, "and read, one by one, the names of the children who were exploding with Christmas spirit, like corn in a hot popper."
A new century
Outside of family and neighborhood parties, Rochester's churches were the center of Christmas and New Year's festivals throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Worship services and choir concerts were common holiday events around town.
". . . First Methodist Episcopal Church on Walnut Street buzzed with activity and excitement," wrote Pat McKay in "Winter in Rochester" published in the winter 2009 edition of In Town magazine. "The Baptist and Congregational churches also celebrated, filling their sanctuaries with elaborate decorations."
On Dec. 30, 1880, the Rochester Era reported that the town was "All ablaze with good times and goodly cheer . . . taken as a whole, the people of Rochester and vicinity have no occasion to complain of a lack of entertainment and amusement."
In the 1920s, Rochester put up a community Christmas tree at the corner of Fifth Street and University Drive. Residents gathered on Christmas Eve to sing carols around the tree and throughout the town.
"There will be a beautiful Christmas tree as usual," reported the Rochester Era on Dec. 21, 1923. ". . . this is a splendid time . . . to show our strong community spirit and good will toward men."
In "Rochester Remembered," a booklet published in 1987 by the Rochester Historical Commission, Irene Haselswerdt Collins fondly remembered the community Christmas tree event.
"The town was divided in sections and a leader was selected for each section," she recalled. "People would follow their leader singing carols and all would meet at the tree for more singing. I accompanied the singing with a piano mounted on a truck."
To the delight of shoppers and residents, in December 1935 Main Street was decorated with Christmas lights for the first time.
Three years later, downtown's Avon Theatre and the Rochester Clarion invited the children of Rochester to a free movie and party on Christmas Eve day. Kids were treated to a Popeye cartoon, the movie, Partners on the Plains starring William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, a visit with Santa Claus and a box of chocolates.
Rochester's annual Christmas parade debuted in December 1952. Sponsored by the Rochester Lions, the parade featured three marching bands, clowns and floats. Hundreds lined the streets to watch the procession make its way down Main Street.
The shopper-friendly Lagniappe (a creole word meaning "a little something extra") event began in November 1973 as a way to encourage downtown merchants to keep their stores open late and thank customers with a complimentary gift or offer.
Rochester as we know it
Many of the Christmas traditions of Rochester's yesteryear live on in new events and continue to bring the community together to celebrate the season.
Under the direction of the Rochester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Rochester Hometown Christmas Parade celebrated 59 years this December and is now considered Michigan's largest Christmas parade. Crowds of 100,000 watch the parade from downtown streets, while an estimated 100,000 more watch the parade live on WXYZ-TV, Channel 7.
For the past five years, Lagniappe has coincided with the Big Bright Lights Show, which keeps the town aglow all season long with over 1 million Christmas lights covering the facades of downtown buildings. Throngs of people from all over Michigan come to see the lights switch on every night through December.
As in Rochester's days of yore, today's holiday celebrations, including a few new ones like the Royal Park Hotel's gingerbread house, make Rochester one big community in a small town. Church doors remain open to those inspired to step inside. Choirs and bells ring in the New Year, and neighbors gather to wish each other season's greetings and good cheer.
George Bailey would be proud.