The Christmas holidays were a special time at Hull-House, where the residents and neighbors took time from their busy lives to celebrate and make the holiday a memorable one for the children. The settlement was “appropriately decorated with holly and greens and candles” and host to a number of celebrations and events.
Eleanor Smith (Hull House Songs)
The chief celebration was the annual children’s Christmas party, which included a concert by the Hull House Music School Choir, led by Eleanor Smith. The 1903 celebration described the lighting of a thousand tiny candles burning on a huge Christmas tree that occupied almost one entire end of the public coffee room.” After the concert, the children, their parents, and the wealthy donors of Hull-House dined and mingled. The papers reported that over 15,000 gifts were given to the children of the poor in 1903 alone, distributed at parties throughout the week leading up to Christmas.
Hull-House clubs often presented performances and hosted celebrations as well. One popular event was a Christmas tableaux, the early 20th century version of the “mannequin challenge,” in which scenes from history were staged in costume.
Hull House list of inexpensive gift suggestions. (Topeka Daily Capital, Dec. 25, 1905)
Hull-House residents preached the spirit of Christmas, one of generosity, rather than excess. In 1905, they wrote, “To observe Christmas in its true spirit, you do not have to buy expensive presents to show your friends that you think of them and wish them joy,” suggesting writing greetings, recipes, and telegrams were good options. In this way they ensured that all could participate, regardless of their income.
In 1902, Hull-House women urged Chicago street car riders to pay an additional penny, six cents total, for their ride, and to put the extra penny in the stockings of the conductors, who, Laura Dainty Pelham insisted, “are underpaid and have to be out of doors all day long on the day that finds most men in their home circle and by the side of the children’s Christmas tree.”
Children playing at Hull-House, ca. 1900 (Swarthmore Peace Collection)
In 1933, the Christmas Eve celebration saw more than 400 children, “little Czechs, Poles, Italians and Greeks,” sing carols, perform in plays, and feast on ice cream and cookies. Described in the newspapers as the children of “the humble homes of laborers, foreign born manual workers who constitute what is know as the ‘immigrant class,'” the holidays proved an apt time to show off the successes of Hull-House’s efforts to build a multicultural community. Unlike many charitable organizations of the time, the workers at Hull-House did not seek to bury cultural differences, but to highlight them in a spirit of education and acceptance. Each national group was welcome to tell their Christmas stories and traditions, play games, and perform traditional dances in native costume. Rather than divide, Hull-House sought to unify by focusing on the shared experiences of their immigrant neighbors, not on their differences.
Here at the Jane Addams Papers Project we wish you the best this holiday season and hope for a peaceful and prosperous New Year.
For details of Hull-House Christmas celebrations, see “Exercises at Hull House,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, Dec. 26, 1898; “Give Conductors 1 Cent,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 21, 1902; “Hull House Fete for Little Ones,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, Dec. 21, 1903; “A Universal Christmas,” Topeka Daily Capital, Dec. 25, 1905; “Miss Pankhurst Praises Concert at Hull House,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 21, 1914; “Hull House Holiday Sale Will be Opened Today,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 1932; “Jane Addams’ Hull House Again Host to Melting Pot,” Bakersfield Californian, Dec. 25, 1933.)