“Sleigh Bells Ring…:” Philadelphia’s Winter Wonderland

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Even as a winter chill descends upon the Northeast, Philadelphians have always known how to keep the season fun and festive with a variety of recreational activities and events. From ice skating on Reyburn Plaza to sleighing through Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia region has historically provided residents and visitors with myriad opportunities to lift their spirits and make the most of winter’s frosty days and nights.

Throughout the years, Philadelphia has traditionally welcomed winter with a mix of holiday displays and decorations, from the famed light show at Wanamaker’s department store to the Christmas trees and menorahs erected across the city at such sites as Independence Hall, Dilworth Plaza, and Rittenhouse Square. Notably, Philadelphia held its first-ever community tree-lighting in 1913 after New York City popularized a new tradition when it erected a municipal Christmas tree in Madison Square Park the year before. The Philadelphia tree was erected in Independence Square between the Commodore Barry statue and Independence Hall and was decorated with 4,200 red, white, and blue lights. A crowd of approximately 20,000 people witnessed the spectacle and Mayor Blankenburg’s wife Lucretia had the honor of lighting the Star of Bethlehem that topped the tree. Evoking the significance of the tree’s location, the tree-topper was made up of fifty-six little stars, which represented the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Prior to the tree-lighting, two bands led about 200 children down Twelfth Street to Independence Square, where they gather around a grandstand. Candles were lit in every window of Independence Hall, while the area immediately surrounding the tree remained cloaked in virtual darkness until it was illuminated at the stroke of 6 o’clock. A program of music by the Moravian Trombone Choir of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and the United Singers of Philadelphia followed the lighting of the tree, which remained on display until New Year’s Day.

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While Christmas trees and holiday lights enhance Philadelphia’s seasonal atmosphere, recreational activities are ongoing sources of amusement and celebration throughout the winter months. Perhaps the quintessential winter sport, ice skating is an enduring popular amusement that, over the years, has been enjoyed at many locations across the Philadelphia region. Situated just north of the Queen Lane pumping station, man-made Gustine Lake was a popular destination for ice-skaters in the early to mid decades of the twentieth century until the lake was converted to a swimming pool in the 1950s. In the post-World War II era, a renewed focus on city planning and urban renewal brought an ice-skating rink to Penn Center near 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, later John F. Kennedy Boulevard. However, as the office complex surrounding City Hall grew and evolved, the skating rink was eventually shut down and replaced by 8 Penn Center in the 1970s. Nonetheless, ice-skating enthusiasts could still hone their skills at rinks in Reyburn Plaza and recreation centers around the city, including the Simons Playground near Woolston Avenue and Walnut Lane and the Tarken Ice Rink at Frontenac and Levick Streets.

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In the winter months, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park has also proved to be a popular recreational destination for seasonal diversions such as tobogganing, sledding, and sleigh riding. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, winter carnivals in Montreal and other Canadian cities popularized toboggan slides, which consequently popped up in many Philadelphia-area parks, including Fort Washington State Park and Willow Grove. In the 1880s, William M. Singerly, a member of the Fairmount Park Commission, gave Philadelphia a toboggan slide to be erected in Fairmount Park. The slide, which measured 2,200 feet and had a fall of 132 feet, opened to the public on February 2, 1887, though the exact location of the slide and how long it remained in the Park is unknown. Accessible on PhillyHistory, a group of photographs from the Office of the City Representative show youngsters trying out a toboggan slide in Fairmount Park in 1968, but this toboggan slide may or may not be the same slide that Mr. Singerly gifted to the city. Also of note, tobogganing was popular enough in the 1880s to even inspire a fashionable “winter sporting costume.” An 1885 article from The Philadelphia Inquirer describes a “charming design for a toboggan dress,” with folds that drape artistically over the hips and a plush jacket, cloak, and wrap that are a “showy and rich” costume for those who “engage in outdoor merry-making.” Fortunately, those merry-makers who preferred to skate or sleigh were not left out, as the article also details dainty skating costumes that were “wonderfully attractive, far more so than toboggan outfits,” and hats and furs that perfectly complemented a winter sleigh ride.

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For fashionable winter revelers Philadelphia’s famed department stores were also a historic source of recreation and amusement, particularly during the holiday shopping season. In terms of holiday spectacle, little rivaled the Wanamaker’s light show, in which seasonal shapes and figures such as snowflakes, nutcrackers, and the like were outlined in colorful lights above the store’s world-renowned pipe organ. At Strawbridge’s department store, the fourth floor was devoted to a life-size walk-through of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, while just east of Strawbridge’s at 8th and Market Streets, Lit Brothers drew people with its Christmas Village display. And across from Lit Brothers, Gimbel’s winter holiday “Toyland” was highlighted every year by the arrival of Santa Claus at the conclusion of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade. At each department store, such indoor attractions were a warm and welcome counterpoint to the city’s outdoor recreation activities. Ultimately, whether admiring festive retail displays, caroling at a tree-lighting, or sledding down a snowy hill, Philadelphians past and present have celebrated the season with a variety of winter traditions that will likely endure as long as Jack Frost continues to make his annual pilgrimage to the region.


Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed December 17, 2010.

Alfred L. Shoemaker and Don Yoder. Christmas in Pennsylvania: A Folk-Cultural Study. (Kutztown: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1959).

“Bethlehem Star in Great Spruce Shines on 20,000.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 25, 1913.

“The Fashions: Novelties in Outdoor Winter Sporting Costumes.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 14, 1885.

“Tingling Weather Increases the Park’s Popularity.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 1912.

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