Remembering Christmas Past

Blanchard Tower displays a huge wreath, decorated with lights, c. 1960.

It has often been astutely observed that our warm feeling for Christmas are not about the present but the past. In other words, sentimental memories of remembered holiday seasons profoundly color our present expectations. As the caretaker for the physical memories of Wheaton College, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections maintains many photos, stories, and other mementos of the joyous, bygone yuletide seasons celebrated throughout the college’s history. As we wistfully glance back at campus festivities, perhaps the candlelit glow of our present Christmas will burn even brighter.

During the Christmas season, Wheaton College staff, students and faculty are typically abuzz with festive activities, whether attending parties or participating in off-campus ministries, such as visiting nursing homes, orphanages and hospitals. The holidays have also provided an opportunity for many seasonally-specific ministries. During the early 1940s, the Christian Council supervised an annual New Year watchnight service prayer service, accompanied by music from the Women’s Glee Club. Students gathered in small groups, walking the neighborhoods to sing carols at homes and downtown businesses.

Past Wheaton College Christmas Card, undated

Examining the popularity of Christmas music as celebrations of the season, The Record conducted a 1947 poll of the campus, reporting “Silent Night” as the favorite Christmas tune, with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night” tied for second place. The third position was secured by Handel’s “Joy to the World.” In addition to campus festivities and music, guest artists from the realm of professional entertainment provided Christmas cheer for the entire community. In 1961, renowned vocalists from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Handel’s “Messiah” in Edman Chapel.

Christmas at Wheaton was not just contained to the campus. Beginning in 1950, the city of Wheaton invited the art department of Wheaton College to construct a display on the corner of Wesley and Main. In 1967, the department installed a somewhat abstract manger scene in Adams Park, highlighted by bright spotlights. Reviewing their efforts, Miriam Hunter, assistant art professor, reflected, “The purpose is to display the glory and sovereignty of God.”

In that spirit of joy and thankfulness, we look back at more than a century of Christmases at Wheaton:

Wheaton College students celebrate Christmas in their dormitory, c. 1900.

Students decorate a very tall Christmas tree situated in a hallway in the Memorial Student Center (1951).

Two Wheaton College students prepare to cut down a tree, or pretend to do so. The angle of the hatchet, and the stance of the girl, might be insufficient for the task, c. 1955.

In his inscription for the official greeting card from the late 1950s, Dr. V. Raymond Edman indulges his rather whimsical tendency to personify Blanchard Tower: “High in lofty limestone Tower hangs the Wheaton Bell, town-crier of victories on athletic field and in fond hearts. It called us to prayer for sons and daughters in the service, and rang with joy when peace was proclaimed. Old Wheaton Bell declares still the Christmas story of Christ’s coming to be our Savior, and awaits His coming again to be the Prince of Peace.”

The official Christmas card from 1978 features an image drawn by Allen Lewis of a shepherd on the night of the Nativity (SC-60). Lewis was an early 20th century artist whose 700 etchings, engravings and illustrations are archived in Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections.

“The First Christmas Gift,” a campus Christmas card from the early 1970s, uses a widely known image created by Vaughan Shoemaker (SC-61), cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News, depicting the Nativity stable beneath the mysterious Star of Bethleham. Several Shoemaker cartoons are archived in Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections.

Two students relax before another very tall tree, probably displayed in the Memorial Student Center, c. 1955.

Dr. V. Raymond Edman and Edith, “friend wife,” sit comfortably before a blazing hearth – or rather, a cold fireplace with an electric lamp lit from within, since there is no actual flame. This photo was published on the cover of Wheaton Alumni magazine, December, 1961. 

Blanchard Tower, swathed in red and green light, stands tall over a slick, reflective sheet of ice covering the front lawn, lit with Narnia-like lampposts, c. 1970.

It is not all serious business in the Graduate School. These students, wearing reindeer horns, march in game during a Christmas celebration, c. 1978.

Explore many more Wheaton traditions, memories, and artifacts through the collections of the College Archives.

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