Commentary
11:58 am
Thu December 19, 2013

The Christmas Season in Louisville, From 1778 to 1960 to Today

Fourth Street in December 1960.
Credit Photo submitted by Keith Runyon

The picture you see is how it was. Dec.19, 1960, exactly 53 years ago. This is Fourth Street, the central shopping street of Louisville, at a time when our city was the 30th largest in America with a population approaching 400,000. It was also very much like other cities, all across America, in the year that John F. Kennedy was elected president, when the space race was in full swing, and when I was just a boy of 10. It was a grand time to be alive.

In those days, more than a half century ago, nobody would have dared decorate for Christmas before Halloween. Indeed, the department stores—like elegant matrons—reserved all such embellishments for the day after Thanksgiving. It was a rule as firm as the requirement that Christmas cards be posted by at least the 20th of December, lest they not arrive after the big day.

However, the day after Thanksgiving could be quite festive. In that autumn of 1960, I was a child actor in the Children’s Drama School, which met every week at Hawthorne Elementary School on Clarendon Drive. Our teacher was Miss Sarah Jean McDowell, whose great claim  to fame aside from her acting ability was that she was the younger sister of the eminent historian Robert Emmett McDowell, who had just completed a history of Louisville. She was a descendant of Dr. Ephraim McDowell, the doctor who performed the first cancer surgery in America—in Danville—long, long ago.

Miss Sarah Jean, however, was focused on the modern and I was cast in a new production of “Ozma of Oz,” based on L. Frank Baum’s novel published in 1907. I was the “Gnome King,” and wore a suit of red flannel with white tights. And a little triangular cap. “Ozma” was something of a hit. We played it in Louisville, at the U of L Playhouse, and then we took it to Fort Knox for Thanksgiving, and then we played it again in Danville in April 1961. After that, I gave up my stage career, but I always remember the thrill of putting on makeup in strange places and the smell of the spirit gum that kept my long beard in place.

But the highlight of all of this was the day after we played at Fort Knox, when I woke up very early to be ready to sit in a float in a parade on Fourth Street. At Fort Knox, we ate a beautiful Thanksgiving meal, all dished out in trays of stainless steel. Huge scoops of dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, turkey and gravy and most of all, enormous wedges of pumpkin pie.

In those days, we had colder winters. I don’t know why, perhaps because it was before global warming, but my little brother and I always had long underwear. So I was outfitted in that, with tights over it, and then my little gnome hat and my false beard. My younger brother, David, sat beside me on the float. I think he was an elf.

What a wonderful parade it was. We began at Main and Fourth and traveled south all the way to Broadway. People cheered, bands played. Our city never looked as spectacular. When we arrived at the end of the line, my mother and grandmother were there to greet me.

As I think about Louisville in those days, I remember lots of beautiful colors. The lights of Fourth Street, with candy canes and icicles. I think about going to Plehn’s Bakery on Christmas Eve, jammed with people who shared our love for the egg kisses, liebkuchen, springerlees, and Mexican wedding cookies.

Christmas is the season that makes us all nostalgic. I am not sure why that is. Much of what we remember about the holidays is complicated: relatives who fought; bills that were greater than anyone expected to pay; weather that confounded getting over the river and through the wood to grandmother’s house. And working: Because I was single, I worked many Christmas days as a young reporter. And the stories we wrote on Christmas always broke hearts. World War II veterans alone at the VA hospital, waiting for relatives who never came.

There’s a wonderful story about the very first Christmas on the banks of the Ohio River at Louisville in 1778. The settlement, which housed about a hundred people in a log fort just above the Falls of the Ohio, had experienced a bitter year, with the western campaign of the Revolutionary War occurring nearby. Disease and hunger were common.

But with the holiday came word from Gen. George Rogers Clark that the tide had turned in the colonists’ favor on the frontier. So the settlers decided to throw a Christmas party, and what a merry one it was. Wade Hall, the author and former Bellarmine professor, has written a wonderful account of that day in the 2003 anthology “A Kentucky Christmas,” published by the University Press of Kentucky. He adapted it from a paper given 100 years earlier by Col. Reuben Durrett, a founder of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

It seems that dancing kept the settlers happy and warm. I suspect there was some form of corn liquor, perhaps bourbon, on hand and plenty to eat. The first African-American to live in Louisville, a man named Cato Watts, played the fiddle.

There have been many, many joyous holidays celebrated here in our River City over the decades, but it is hard to imagine any more lively ones than this. So this year, 235 years later, let’s remember our pioneer forebears, and as we do, let us all have a very Merry Christmas.

 Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He'll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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