For nearly 200 years, Christmas has been celebrated in Hannibal. The first holidays were celebrated in log cabins; by the 1840s when the Clemens family arrived in Hannibal, churches had been established, and gatherings with friends and family included the exchange of small gifts wrapped in brown paper tied with string. Soon, front parlors were decorated with Christmas trees, with fruit, nuts, berries and candy hanging from their boughs lit by the glow of candles clipped to the tree.
As the snows came, children enjoyed ice skating on Bear Creek and sledding down Hannibal’s steep hills. Some years, horse-drawn traffic was brought to a halt to allow those sledding down Seventh Street to pass; so severe was the street’s slope that, with the right toboggan, a few adventuresome sledders could start at the intersection of Seventh and Hill and make it all the way to Lyon Street in one, long pass.
Eventually, candlelit trees gave way to fancy electric lights. Gift-giving became a more prominent part of the holidays, and jolly old St. Nick, now known as Santa Claus, delighted children with the promise of rewards for good behavior.
During the postwar years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, before malls began to appear along Highway 61, downtown Hannibal was where people went to shop. Broadway and Main Street were considered the main shopping areas in Hannibal, and, during the holiday season, the downtown district became even more special — the day after Thanksgiving, stores transformed overnight into a holiday fantasyland.
At that time, eagerly anticipated was the opening of Santa’s House at the intersection of Broadway and Main Street, where the Avenue of Flags is situated today. Children from throughout the region would wait in line to greet Santa in the small, square house decorated to look like Santa’s front parlor.
Once inside, near the pot-bellied stove lit to keep everyone warm, children would be greeted by one of Santa’s helpers and brought to sit on Santa’s lap to discuss their Christmas wish list. Each child would receive a piece of candy as they exited the back of the house.
During the holidays, the Hannibal Merchant’s Bureau organized the downtown stores to stay open until 9 on Saturday evenings in December as well as the last four shopping days before Christmas. Of course, all stores were closed on Sundays.
Many remember favorite holiday shopping spots such as Kresge’s “five-and-dime” store at 111 N. Main, where you could have a hot chocolate at the lunch counter to warm up after standing in line to meet Santa; the Famous department store at 104 N. Main, where you could earn and redeem Eagle Stamps; and Kline’s at 302 Broadway, a large store that covered the entire city block. All would entice shoppers with lavishly decorated windows and holiday sales.
Heiser’s Jewelry Store at 115 S. Main, the phone number of which was 729, encouraged shoppers to consider Bulova watches and diamond rings. Stores on Main Street all did nice window displays; none was more exciting to youngsters than Hayden’s Hardware Store, situated at 211 N. Main, which always had a grand toy display.
The glow of electric lights made the streets magical. Large lighted archways spanned Broadway and Main and Third streets. Residents gathered on the second or third block of North Main to listen as the Salvation Army band would play Christmas music, and churches would bring their choirs downtown to sing carols.
Nativity in the park
Central Park also featured holiday decorations and events. The Merchant’s Bureau sponsored an elaborate nativity scene and several other displays, including lights strung around the fountain. During the early 1960s, Santa’s house was located in Central Park.
Children in mid-century Hannibal were treated to a Christmas event at the Tom Sawyer Theater, now home to The Crossing church. At a party the Saturday before Christmas, Santa would make an appearance with bags of candy; sometimes there were magicians on stage and cartoons between movies. The show sometimes lasted three or four hours.
During one event, in December 1950, the theater advertised Hadacol’s Christmas Party. Hadacol’s was a patent medicine marketed as a vitamin supplement — that just happened to have 12 percent alcohol content, which was listed on the label as a “preservative.” Children who brought a Hadacol’s boxtop would receive free admission — “Ask Mom and Dad to Get You a Hadacol Box Top!”
On Saturday, Dec. 23, 1950, the Hadacol Christmas Party began at 9 a.m. and offered a full-length feature of Hopalong Cassidy, a Woody Woodpecker comedy and “Gifts for Every Child!”
In 1965, the Huck Finn Shopping Center opened on Highway 61, and the shopping habits of Hannibalians began to change. Downtown stores were no longer popular. Christmas in downtown Hannibal diminished over the years. Santa’s House, the Central Park nativity display and the Tom Sawyer Theater are now just memories — fond childhood recollections of Hannibalians who now celebrate Christmas with their grandchildren.
The merchants of Broadway and Main Street hope to bring shoppers back to downtown Hannibal. The Victorian Festival of Christmas begins Saturday, Nov. 26, aka Small Business Saturday, when shoppers are encouraged to turn their attention from bigbox stores and make purchases at locally owned businesses.
Santa will be available each Saturday from Nov. 26 through Dec. 17, and downtown shops, restaurants, museums and other establishments will be open through Christmas Eve.
Enjoy the traditions of the season including carolers, the Salvation Army Band, the Jaycees Christmas Parade and Living Windows. Please plan to join in the festivities of Victorian Christmas and create new family memories — in doing so, you will be supporting merchants who work hard to continue these traditions and strive to preserve historic downtown Hannibal throughout the year.
- BY LISA MARKS