Kansas City Christmas – 1918

(originally published 12/20/2018)

One hundred years is a long time, more than the average lifetime. And since most of us won’t live that long, it’s easy to think of 100 years ago as an abstraction, something difficult to imagine, and almost certainly different than today.

One hundred years ago this time of year, throughout Kansas City and the rest of America spirits were particularly high. The ink on the Armistice agreement ending World War I was barely dry. Most troops wouldn’t make it home in time for Christmas, but it surely wouldn’t be too much longer. The forces behind the formation of the League of Nation were coalescing around a vague promise of world peace based on what were naively believed to be “shared principles.” The plague that was misnamed the Spanish Influenza had ravaged both the US and Europe, but seemed to be – hopefully – was now on the decline. Citizens no longer felt quarantined, but free to gather in public places, to shop, to celebrate with friends and family.

All these milestones of American history were reported in the Kansas City Times (the morning edition of the Star) on Christmas Day, 1918. Banner headlines in newspapers weren’t the norm back then, but on Christmas Day, the headline was a simple message of the season – “Merry Christmas.” And while Kansas City was as affected by these world events as any city in the nation, what dominates the Times reporting that day are the small events that remain staples of the holiday season.

“Pity the Traffic Cop” relates a still familiar dilemma of one poor fellow whose job it was to maintain order in the wake of holiday traffic and on the heels of a snowstorm that stranded “motor cars” on Christmas Eve. As he relates it to the Times’ reporter, “I am about frozen, and a minute ago I started waving my arms to restore circulation, and the drivers thought I was giving signals, and the first thing I knew there were cars coming down on me from four different directions. It took me fifteen minutes to get them straightened out again.”

The romance of the holiday season remains today as it was then. “Cupid Had a Busy Day: Twenty-Eight Couples Applied” for marriage licenses in Kansas City that Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Cupid wasn’t as lucky in Independence, where the weather kept anyone from applying for a license, though the Times noted there had been sixteen couples the previous year.

One tradition of charity we know today was already a fixture of the holiday season in 1918. For Kansas City’s needy, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Association delivered “about eighteen hundred bushel baskets heaped high with groceries.” The baskets went to most of the families who had applied to the Welfare Board for assistance. The Board had received 2,100 letters, leaving 300 families wanting.

Still, the vestiges of the war were ever present. On Christmas Eve, servicemen were guests at the local War Camp Community Service club room (roughly akin to the USO canteen), where they could enjoy the “holly and evergreen festoonings,” and where the Junior League Girls managed the program “consisting of songs and games” and non-alcoholic refreshments. Over at Union Station “a mighty volume of song” entertained the few holiday travelers and returning servicemen who had braved the snowstorm.

But though it was Christmas, and spirits were high, the consequences of war continued, bitterly robbing eight Kansas City families of the joyous celebrations they had planned. “On Today’s List,” was a standard column that was part of the war coverage – the list of those local servicemen still being accounted for, the war’s last casualties – six wounded severely, one whose wounds were undetermined, and one missing in action. Kansas City likely considered itself lucky that Christmas. At least none of those listed had been killed.

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