Updated December 24, 2023 - 9:46 am
Christmas in 1923 is famous in American history for the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree.
On Dec. 24 a century ago, in the Ellipse near the White House, President Calvin Coolidge turned on electric lights strung on a 48-foot evergreen tree, according to the U.S. National Archives.
That year, Las Vegas (a rather small burg, population only 2,302 as of the 1920 census), had similar plans for a such a tree — although likely a more modest one — as it already had for about 10 years running, according to the Las Vegas Age newspaper.
The Las Vegas version was known as the “Community Christmas Tree.” The city appointed a committee to manage the tree, set right up on Fremont Street between First and Second streets, and scheduled the lighting time for just after dusk, 7 p.m., Monday, Dec. 24, 1923.
“Each Christmas Eve, the great pine in the middle of Fremont Street glowed with colored lights and sparkled with Christmas decorations,” the Age reported, with a Santa Claus beneath it handing out goodies “for every child in Las Vegas,” including those who “otherwise would have had but a somber Christmas.”
The endeavor has been “well worthwhile,” the newspaper continued. “The Community Christmas Tree has done more than gladden the hearts of the children. It has brought the community together in the work of relieving the distress and bringing substantial assistance to unfortunate families.”
That time in Las Vegas history, as printed in the Age, revealed the importance of religious and civic groups to the local public.
“The work has been made possible through the friendly cooperation of churches, fraternal societies and the general public,” the newspaper wrote.
The Rotary Club held a Christmas program with a Santa, as did the local church. A chorus at the Methodist Church performed the cantata “Baby’s First Christmas.” A Christmas midnight mass at the local Catholic Church featured a choir singing Unison Mass in D, plus “Holy Night,” “Adeste Fideles” (aka “O Come, All Ye Faithful”) and “Benedictus,” among many other classics.
“The children of Christ Episcopal Church will be entertained Saturday afternoon (Dec. 22),” the Age reported. “They will gather at the home of Mrs. French and then go to the Chocolate Shop where they will be entertained by Mr. and Mrs. McKay.”
Meanwhile, on the Friday leading to the start of Christmas break, the Las Vegas Grammar School downtown featured student performances.
The show started with a “Toyland” scene, where the school’s youngest kids played toys coming to life with a girl, “the dainty little Maydel Pistole,” waving a fairy wand, the Age stated. Then third- and fourth-grade pupils played the fictional Ruggles family from the popular 19th century novel, “The Bird’s Christmas Carol.”
Fifth and sixth graders, dressed as Dutch people, listened to “the story of Good St. Nicholas,” and for the finale, the seventh- and eighth-grade kids sang the musical “The First Christmas Eve” with a prologue, “the Herald Angels, the Shepherds, the Wise Men, the groups of worshipers, and finally the cradle in the manger,” according to the Age.
“The old Christmas hymns were sung by a chorus of girls,” the Age continued. “The story was brought to a close by the advent of the Spirit of Christmas.”
The Majestic Theater, the city’s main movie theater owned by prominent businessmen Bill Pike and Ernie Cragin, arranged for a special free matinee of silent films, the main feature “Thundergate” and an “Our Gang” comedy short, for Christmas Day.
For holiday shoppers, stores lining Fremont Street, the city’s shopping district, sought to please with Christmas displays in their front windows, according to the Age.
The new Adcock &Ronnow clothing store had a “central enclosure with plate glass on all sides,” the Age stated, with a decorated tree beside “a display of evening gowns, hose and slippers which would do credit to any city” and to the left “is a big display of men’s suits, hats, shoes and furnishings.”
The venerated Beckley’s, a high-end clothing and accessories store, arranged for a full page advertisement touting Christmas present ideas for men, women and kids — luggage, wardrobe travel trunks, silk shirts, underwear, coats, dress gloves, handkerchiefs and pajamas.
To remind people with at-home Christmas trees, the Age published a statement from the Board of Fire Underwriters of the Pacific, warning about the dangers of the fire.
“Do not use cotton to represent snow,” the board stated. “Asbestos fiber or powered mica is a good substitute.”
In a caution against a one-time tree lighting tradition, and a nod toward modernity, the board said: “Do not use candles. The records show that many lives are lost because of their use. Electric lighting systems, properly installed, avoid this danger.”