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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, March 3

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The First Municipal Christmas Tree

In 1913, Chicago businessman P.J. Jordan donated a 35-foot tree to the city. He made the donation in memory of his late partner and friend, Captain Herman Schuenemann, who had died the year before when his ship sank on Lake Michigan while making its way to Chicago with its cargo of Christmas trees (see last week's column).

The city's first municipal Christmas tree was erected in Grant Park. On Christmas Eve thousands of people gathered in the park to watch the lighting ceremony. Mayor Carter Harrison II did the honors while bands played and the crowd sang.

Chicago has had a municipal Christmas tree every year since then, and on November 26, 2004, Mayor Daley threw the switch for the city's 91st annual tree lighting ceremony.

In 1956 the city began the tradition of erecting a giant tree formed by grouping together many smaller trees. But the Christmas tree was located in Grant Park until 1966, when it was moved to its current location at Daley Center Plaza (then simply named the Civic Center Plaza). In 1996 the city even installed a permanent anchoring system for the annual tree in the plaza.

To see some wonderful photographs of Chicago's first Christmas tree, the Christmas tree ships and other holiday traditions from the early part of the Twentieth Century, check out the "Christmas Activities" section of the Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, 1902-1933. This collection of photos from the Chicago Historical Society archives is part of the American Memory online exhibitions from the Library of Congress.

Rudolph the Chi-town Reindeer

Although the animated special may be the longest running holiday program in television history, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a fairly recent addition to the Christmas folk story canon. And not only that, Rudolph was created right here in Chicago in 1939.

The tale of the outcast reindeer was the brainchild of 34-year-old Robert L. May, an advertising copywriter for Chicago's Montgomery Ward department stores. He had been charged with writing an original Christmas story for a promotional booklet to be distributed to customers.

May developed the story of Rudolph, and enlisted another Ward's employee to provide illustrations. The artist, Denver Gillen, went to Lincoln Park Zoo, observing the zoo's deer to draft the original sketches for Rudolph.

In 1939 Montgomery Ward gave away nearly two and a half million copies of the original booklet, and it proved so popular that the store continued to distribute the story until 1946.

In 1947 May successfully lobbied the company to receive the copyright for Rudolph. May successfully marketed the story. His financial well-being was secured when his brother-in-law, composer Johnny Marks, wrote a song for Rudolph, creating an instant Christmas classic.

Despite his fortune, Robert May continued to work at Montgomery Ward until retiring in 1971. He passed away in 1976.

Visit the always-entertaining Urban Legend Reference Pages to find out more about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, including a summary of May's original story, which differs substantially from the song and other adaptations.

Additional Sources

Benes, Jim. Chicago Christmas: One Hundred Years of Christmas Memories. Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 2000.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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