|

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

ChristmasTree0001One thing many people remember about Christmastime in Belvidere was the gigantic Christmas tree erected on South State Street. Covered in colored lights and topped with a star, the tree dominated Belvidere’s downtown and ushered in the Christmas holidays.

While the tree usually soared to about 40-50 feet high, quite a few were noted to stretch 70 feet or higher! 1916 was the first year in which Belvidere put up a large tree in the downtown business district (though the first was not located directly on State St.). According to a newspaper article from December 19 of that year, the tree was planned “to inculcate a community Christmas spirit; to bring vividly before the community as a whole and in an impressive manner the lessons of Christmas and the manifold blessings of its proper celebration.”

A Christmas program of music and skits performed by residents and schoolchildren accompanied the lighting of the tree. The Community Christmas tree soon became a tradition in Belvidere; lighting ceremonies took place in early December and included a visit from Santa Claus. In 1928, the local newspaper described the tree as “a pyramid of green festooned with gaily colored light bulbs.” Most of the trees were donated by Boone County farmers and were erected by volunteers and employees of the telephone and utility company.

For some reason, the tradition ended sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s. However, Vincent (Beanie) Spencer brought the giant Christmas tree tradition back to Belvidere in 1948 by donating a large tree from his land, which was set into a manhole in the middle of South State St. by the railroad tracks. According to a newspaper article from 1951, Spencer decided to start the tradition after accepting the challenge from a friend. Referred to as “Paul Bunyon-like,” Spencer said he wanted to “furnish a thrill for all the youngsters in the community.”

The massive trees soon became the focal point of the downtown’s decorations and once again became a symbol of the Christmas season in Belvidere. In 1953, it was written that the huge tree “annually attracts the attention not only of local residents, but of motorists who pass through the city enroute to other destinations.”

In addition to the downtown decorations, the Chamber of Commerce planned Christmas parties for the children, complete with a parade, a visit and treats from Santa Claus (who even rode in on the train!), and movies at the Apollo Theater for the admission price of a canned good. In 1952 alone, almost 1,800 children came downtown for the festivities, causing Santa to run out of goodies!

After Vincent Spencer’s death in 1952, his family continued the Christmas tradition through the late 1950s. Today, the massive community tree is only a happy memory for many Belvidere residents. Yet Christmas decorations still abound in downtown Belvidere, from the “Season’s Greetings” sign over the fire station to the lighted decorations on the telephone poles. And Belvidere is still home to a (smaller) decorated downtown Christmas tree, which is lit every year during the Hometown Christmas celebrations.

 

~ Jillian Fuller, Ida Public Library Local History Room, Belvidere IL

Share: