Events and People Snapshots of History

Happy Holidays from PhillyHistory Blog

The first public tree goes up in Independence Square in 1913.

Lists reflecting on the bests and worsts of the waning year are nearly as abundant as egg nog and cardboard-flavored cookies in the weeks leading up to the holidays. But unlike the transience of yearly in memoriams, Philadelphia’s rich tradition of holiday decorations is long and vibrant.

We hope you’ll think of this collection of holiday photos in Philadelphia not as a list, but as ongoing documentation of the persistence of cheer and lights and, sure, brotherly love, in a city that has kept the holiday spirit alive even in times of hardship.

As PhillyHistory and PlanPhilly have explained, the tree pictured right in front of Independence Square marked the city’s first public Christmas tree and seems to have heralded a tradition of “civic Christmas trees” that has subsequently lit the city during the darkest winter days.

But everyone knows the city doesn’t just celebrate with trees. A collection of carolers gathered in Reyburn Plaza in 1958, with two children sitting, apparently enchanted, in the foreground. In 1956, the city installed a live Santa and a child-sized train set in Reyburn Plaza, but according to the St. Joseph Gazette, no children arrived to ride the train or convey their Christmas lists to Santa. Our guess is that they were relying on the “real” Santa at the Wanamaker Building.

Today we know the holiday seasons would be incomplete without the audiovisual familiarity of jingling bells and red kettles from the Salvation Army. That was true in 1962, too. Below, volunteers celebrate the unveiling of the Salvation Army Christmas billboard that year.

Although the red kettle tradition actually began in San Francisco, Philadelphia was the site of the first Salvation Army meeting in 1879, nearly a century before this photo was taken.

Mayor John Street, looking festive, took a ride in a carriage at the city’s annual tree lighting and holiday festival in 2002. Since Street’s tenure, the yearly ceremony has expanded to include a Christmas Village. This year, due to the construction on Dilworth Plaza, the celebration took place at Love Park across the street.

And with that look at the holidays through years, here’s a graceful, 1962 holiday message that means the same today as it did then:

A lit sign carrying warm wishes over the frozen water at Kelly and Girard.

As a holiday bonus, here is a smattering of trees from 1959, 2002, and 2004:

The 1959 Christmas Tree display at City Hall.

Christmas in Love Park (2002).

The city’s 2004 tree at twilight.