(originally published 12/12/19)
Christmas came early for me, in the form of a flood of great Christmas-related photos and stories. I hadn’t planned to dedicate most of this month’s posts to the holiday, but this bounty of history changed my mind. I started last week with a photo montage about Christmas events in Kansas City over the last century that have nothing to do with the Plaza Lights. It was a good reminder for me that the meaning of Christmas not only has nothing to do with the gifts we buy, but that there’s just as much tradition in a humble church pageant as there is in the electrification of 80 miles of string lights. And this week’s offering is a good reminder that not every Christmas event stands the test of time, and for good reason.
In the early 1920s, the Nichols Company was looking for a way to incorporate a Christmas tradition into the life and culture of the Country Club District neighborhoods. Today, all the former Nichols Company shopping areas – the Plaza, Crestwood, Brookside, Prairie Village, etc. – have their Christmas traditions, designed primarily to attract holiday sales, of course. But in 1921, that wasn’t yet quite the emphasis. Remember, in 1921, there was a Brookside Shopping District (1919), but there wasn’t yet the Crestwood shops (1922) or the Country Club Plaza (1923), let alone all the other later shopping areas. The Nichols Company’s interest was still focused on promoting a cohesive district from a swath of new neighborhoods south of Brush Creek.
The Nichols Company had supported the creation of a Woman’s Community Council by women of the District, formed to be the community expression of the company’s interest in getting neighborhoods to work together on civic and community projects. (More about the Women’s Community Council in an upcoming post). Having only been formed about a year earlier, the 1921 Christmas Pageant was likely one of the council’s earliest productions.
The Nichols Company’s Country Club District Bulletin, the publication for residents, announced the pageant on the front page of the December 1921 issue. If there is an official name for the pageant, it is not given. The headline was the only clue: “Knight of 1921” will Rescue “Christmas Spirit” at Community Christmas Tree.” The article’s opening paragraphs mention that the District will have a community tree that year, at the corner of Westover Road and Brookside Boulevard at four o’clock on Christmas eve, when “the real Christmas Spirit will be rescued by the Knight of 1921.” The play is crudely in the form of the old medieval play tradition, this one in Morality Play tradition. Other than that, I’ll let the original description of the play, as posted in the Bulletin, tell its own story, the story of the downfall of Selfishness. The transcription reads in part….
As the scene opens we find the Spirit of Chivalry, who has been secretly drugged by the Witch Selfishness, lying asleep upon a pile of rocks. The Christmas Spirit enters slowly, with her handmaidens, Faith, Hope and Love walking sorrowfully beside her. The hands of Christmas Spirit are bound with rope, and Selfishness holds one end of the rope, as she walks laughing and jeering behind her. The group is surround by green elves “Giving and Taking.” As they reach the Christmas Tree, Selfishness and a group of elves bind Christmas Spirit to it. Faith, Hope and Love plead with Selfishness, as she fastens the rope. Other elves take the Dove of Peace which Hope carries and place it in a cage on the tree – while still others gather fagots (1)(bundles of twigs used to fuel fires) which they throw at Christmas Spirit’s feet. Faith, Hope and Love stand sorrowfully, consulting together.
Suddenly Faith rushes to the Spirit of Chivalry and shakes him with all her might. Thoroughly aroused and realizing the desperate situation, Chivalry blows his bugle for the Knight of 1921, who enters on horseback led by the Heart of the World. Following them come the Children of All Nations. The Knight dismounts in front of Christmas Spirit and cuts the rope which binds her. Christmas Spirit is now free. The little red elves chase the green elves “Giving and Taking” off the scene, while Chivalry binds selfishness. The Children of all Nations group themselves about the tree. Seeing the Knight is about to leave, Faith, Hope and Love lead Christmas Spirit toward him. Faith gives him an iron cross from her neck; Hope, a crown of holly leaves; and Love, a large Christmas Candle. Christmas Spirit walks back to the tree, liberates the Dove of Peace and brings it back with her, handing it to the Knight. The Knight, standing in his saddle, holds the Dove of Peace high in the air, and with a gesture to the Children of All Nations, sends it forth into the world, as the Girl Reserves start singing Christmas Carols, and the lights on the Christmas Tree blaze forth.
The Christmas Tree will remain lighted all week, carrying a message of Christmas Cheer and Good Will to all who pass that way.
Also a part of the day’s celebrations was a group of carolers who traveled through the Country Club District. Those in the picture on the right, above, are dressed as shepherds riding on the back of a festively decorated wagon, standing in front of the Colonial Shops at 51st and Oak Street. The note with the photos says the Nichols Company furnished the hayrack and the carolers. The company certainly had the equipment, and it would not be unusual for Nichols to recruit staff members for something like this. Those on the picture on the left are also identified as carolers in the photo notes , although their costumes seem more aligned to the pageant than to wagon-riding shepherds. The notes also say the picture was taken in the Country Club Coffee Shop, which would almost had to have been in the Colonial Shops.
A couple of quick notes of my own: The term “Girl Reserves” listed in the cast of characters (see top banner photo) refers to a YWCA girls program of the era. Also note (1) the word “fagots” refers to small bundles of twigs used to start a bonfire. This, then, would imply there was a bonfire at some point, for which, if we are lucky, the script for this pageant was also used as kindling.
Featured Photo: This silhouette appeared on the front page of the Country Club District Bulletin announcement of the pageant, and included the names of some of the cast. Courtesy Kansas City Public Library