107 NE Monroe Peoria, Illinois 61602-1070

Santa's Biggest Helper

As a member of a family containing eleven children, Christmas was a glorious day. However it was not because of the meager gifts we got from Santa. There were a lot of pies and cakes and a turkey thanks to the hard work of my mother and older sisters, uncles and aunts all pitching in.  As a kid though getting toys was upper most in my mind; but it never really happened.  Money was not easy to come by in those days but as a kid I had no interest in why I couldn’t have them…I just wanted them. It was that simple. I found out early, probably in 1937, that there was one thing from Santa I could count on and that was my big red stocking. Of course I had no idea who provided for it, but every year all the young kids were taken to the Palace Theater for the greatest day of the year. 

Up on the stage were decorated Christmas trees, little Elves in green and the man himself, Mr. Santa Claus.  Getting my hands on that big red stocking which was about as long as I was tall was the best thrill of every one of those younger years. As the years rolled on I tried to pay them back with the sales of my books and other donations. Every year the need grew and today the Journal-Star manages to continue the Journal-Star Christmas Fund. Truth is most Peorians still call it the Red Stocking Fund.  It all began in 1919 when the publisher of the newspaper called in one of his reporters, Glen Walley and assigned him the job of forming the fund and getting the project of providing Christmas gifts for the underprivileged kids underway.   He contacted business owners, charitable groups and called upon the newspaper’s readers to send in donations to help a needy kid around Christmas time.  And so it began; each year it grew and the demands on the fund grew and people responded. 

                   THE  FIRST  PARTY

The first Christmas Party was held at the Courthouse square where at least a thousand folks gathered around to sing and cheer old Santa as he gave away about four hundred big red stockings to the eager kids. As the size of the crowd grew arrangements were made to use the beautiful Shrine Mosque for the event.  From the toys and the dolls that were jammed into the stocking came the gift of a Christmas Food Basket being distributed at homes around Christmas time as well.  I certainly remember two men coming to my house, they brushed off the snow from their coats and brought in two bushel baskets jammed full of apples, oranges, candy canes, nuts and hard candy. Between the baskets and the red stockings all the kids in my family seemed as happy as if we were getting new bikes and wagons like some of our friends received.  But…I must admit I can still feel the pain and disappointment, but I learned to accept it as did my siblings. To this day I can remember when the party was moved over to the Palace Theater which also meant a movie and a lot of carol singing before Santa finally appeared behind that big curtain covering the stage. Those were magical moments I can tell you that.

Records show that very nearly 1,300 kids filled that theater to sing the carols, watch the movie and then hold their breath as the curtains flowed open to reveal the wonders of Christmas and Old Saint Nick.  I remember standing up every time I went there just to look at all the kids and the faces all lit up with bright eyes and wild grins.  We sang our hearts out and clapped and screamed.  I am sure we drove the adults’ nuts; but we never stopped the noise. “But wait!   Do you hear those bells?  Listen!  There he is…it’s him…it really is Santa!”   Finally that moment came when the girls went to the left…boys to the right for the trek up to the stage.  I can tell you it was a heart pounding event for all of us.  It was a good thing there were enough adults in charge to curb our enthusiasm or there would have been utter chaos.

And so here it is another Christmas! Everything has changed, it is no longer the Red Stocking Party, but the kids are the same, the need is even greater today than it was then. Throughout it all the Journal-Star has kept the party alive by writing about the need for more money to keep the kids eyes popping, and the voices singing and the little hands clapping. The newspaper people can only do so much so the rest is up to us.  Of course I mean all of us to keep this magic for all those kids that began way back in 1919.  The Journal Star Christmas Fund needs your help. Just send whatever you can to them at Christmas Fund, One News Plaza, Peoria, Illinois 61643.  Can you hear the Christmas Bells ringing?  Can you see Santa when he steps out in front of all those kids? Please…don’t ever let it stop.
Editor’s Note:  Norm is a Peoria Historian and True Crime Writer.            norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net