Blast From The Past: Celebrating 40 Years of Christmas Fun
Halloween might be just around the corner, but we have Christmas on our minds here at the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce! This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Christmas parade in downtown West Chester! The Chamber would like to share an article which first appeared 15 years ago, written by Kay Eby Moore, Old Fashioned Christmas originator. Here are her thoughts on how it all began.
History of Old Fashioned Christmas in Historic West Chester
Written by Kay Eby Moore, OFC originator
In the late summer of 1980 I was elected to the Board of Directors of the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce. This is and was a very active group and each member of the Board heads up or champion’s particular projects. It was in September of 1980 that I was asked to look into new Christmas decorations for the Borough. No one could remember how old the current decorations wer but as bent and fallen plastic angels, it was long past their time to be replace.
The conversation at that board meeting concentrated on how to enhance and invigorate the retail community of downtown West Chester especially with the onset of the holiday season. Christmas decorations were on solution but in my mind the retail community needed something else. They needed an attraction… an event to bring shoppers to town.
So I took the Christmas decoration assignment and came back to the Board in October with a business plan. I proposed that we capitalize on the historic nature of this small town with an event that would take people back in time.
I proposed to recreate a Victorian town at Christmas with an Old Fashioned Santa parade, costumed vendors on street corners selling hot cider and roasted chestnuts, kerosene lantern walking tours of historic sections of the city led by costumed guides and showcasing period tableaus in the windows of offices and homes, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in the Courthouse with a presiding judge as star, fresh greens and ribbons on all the storefronts and of course, new decorations of the street. The ideas for the new Christmas decorations came from Chestnut Hill (Philadelphia) where each Christmas that town is transformed by little white lights in all the trees lining the boulevard. It was a simple yet dramatic solution to transforming the town. And it was the kind of idea that would not go out of style and was more natural than the plastic decorations of the past.
The Board enthusiastically embraced the ideas but with some concern as to whether it could be a reality by Christmas, less than two months out. It really was a potentially enormous project but I believed that there were lots of people in town who would be willing to support a project like this. I went home that night and called everyone I knew to see if they would be interested in getting their friends to help.
In two months and 100 plus volunteers, Old Fashioned Christmas in Historic West Chester debuted in town. Here are some of the people who in that first year made the event a success:
Eric Lorgus who headed the storefront decorating committee amongst a whole host of things including driving to Camp Horseshoe in Maryland to borrow kerosene lanterns for the walking tours.
Nancy Halladay (Halladay Florist) and the late Lois Heins (The Greenery) who contributed to the thousands of ribbons used to decorate the stores.
Lawyers David Bortner and John Spangler who played the part of Marley and Scrooge at a tableau in their Miner Street office.
Eileen Weiss Merlin, John Shumard and Liz Sweeney who manned the information booth.
Diane O’Brien who was responsible for designing the look of downtown, the natural swag of pine roping on the storefronts and the large red signature ribbons on the light posts.
Tom Walsh and Dick Webster who conducted the historic tours of sections of town and reveled walkers with folklore of the town.
The late Rob Gawthrop who presided as the judge in Trial by Jury and was a larger than life contributor to the annual event.
The late Marshall Jones and Ira Hicks who provided the perfect sleigh for Santa, the late Warren Mercer.
Joan Pennell, the secretary of the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce who kept everyone organized and enthused.
Dawn L’heureux who was the costume historian of the event and who with her husband James presided over the Lincoln Building on Market Street.
The Exchange Club led by Ulrich Klabunde who decorated the tree on the court house lawn.
A major project that first year was covering up the empty storefronts of which there were many. Christmas trees were halved and nailed up in front of a vacant Harrison Theatre. The fifth and sixth graders of Dennis Haggerty at West Chester Friends School painteed a mural on a vacant Kaufman’s department store.
And other volunteers – Darlene and Wayne Clapp, Mike Pillagalli, Nancy Klabunde, Mel Josephs, Jerry Moore, John Moore, John and Wynne Milner, John O’Brien and all of their friends and neighbors who gathered with ladders and staplers, with greens and ribbons on Gay, Market and Church Streets to decorate the town.
It was all of these volunteers and more who, in that first year, had the vision and the belief that Old Fashioned Christmas could be the success it was and continues to be today.
No one was more surprised and pleased than me to see that Old Fashioned Christmas has continued year after year as it now heads into its 20th year. It requires hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers, man-hours and the continued commitment of the retail community, the Chamber of Commerce and the Borough. It has certainly grown larger over the years, expanding into a three-day weekend event, but it is also rewarding to know that the elements of the event begun back in 1980 are continued today.
As we see West Chester experience a renaissance I believe we should thank its people… those who have volunteered to serve on Borough Boards and Commissions, participated in town events, rallied to the call to save historic buildings and who have consistently championed the belief that West Chester is truly a unique historic town and a fabulous place to live and work.
Friday, December 10, 1999