Rochester’s Holiday Traditions

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season, and that means downtown Rochester’s annual Big, Bright Light Show now illuminates Main Street every evening. Currently in its 13th year, the light show is a local holiday tradition that draws crowds from across the metro area. The light show, however, is only the latest version of Rochester’s holiday décor.

Old photo showing a train looking float in the parade on Main Street with people lining the sidewalks

Christmas Parade view ca. 1969 – Photo Courtesy of the Whitbey Family

Our Main Street Christmas makeover began in 1935, when according to local newspaper accounts that the downtown business district was festooned with electric Christmas lights for the first time. The community had survived the worst years of the Great Depression, and the economy was once again on the upswing. Merchants and civic leaders decided that they could spare a few dollars for some twinkling lights to encourage shopping.

The Christmas lights stayed in storage during World War II, as Washington asked towns across the nation to save electricity and observe blackout regulations. When the war ended, the Rochester Lions Club coordinated the decoration of Main Street, and judging from the newspaper accounts, war-weary citizens were more than ready for a festive look. The Rochester Era of October 18, 1945 reported: “Zeno Schoolcraft, Earl Zimmerman and Angus Dahlman were appointed a committee of three to cooperate with other committees about town in providing for the Christmas decorations for the main business section of Rochester for the Yule Season. Make it good boys, or else!”

A marching band parades down Main Steet in Downtown Rochester with sidewalks full of onlookers

Christmas Parade ca. 1969 – Photo Courtesy of the Whitbey Family

Decorations in those days were simpler than those we see today. Multicolored swags of lights stretched between the utility poles across Main Street. Light posts were wrapped with garland and anchored large candy canes. In 1947, art students at Rochester High School designed holiday-themed medallions to hang from the light poles.

In 1952, the Downtown Merchants Association ushered in the holiday shopping season with a Christmas parade down Main Street. The color guard of the American Legion’s Homer Wing Post led off the procession, and Santa in his sleigh was the highly anticipated finale. After the parade dispersed, Santa held court for area children from his throne in the lobby of the Hills Theater. Shopping mall Santas had not yet made their appearance on the local scene.

The first parade was a great success and turned into an annual event that is now in its 66th year. The Rochester Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation sponsors Rochester’s Hometown Christmas Parade now, and it will take place this year on Sunday, December 2 at 2:00 p.m.

Scottish bagpippers march down Main Street

Christmas Parade 1954 – Photo Courtesy of Erv Bauer

For many years, downtown merchants encouraged holiday shopping with a promotion called Window Night. In weeks preceding the event, shopkeepers gave out numbered tickets with each purchase. At 7:00 p.m. on Window Night, when the fire siren blew, each merchant drew a winning number and posted it in the store’s window. Anxious shoppers clogged the sidewalks as they went from store to store comparing the numbers in the windows to the tickets in their hands. The holder of a store’s winning number was awarded a special merchandise prize.

Window Night lasted until 1971, and the year 1972 ushered in a new local tradition called Lagniappe. Lagniappe means “a little something extra” and refers to a small gift, premium, or bonus that a merchant offers to his customers as thanks for their patronage. Each participating downtown business offered its own Lagniappe gift to shoppers during the promotion. The first Lagniappe program was sponsored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, and kicked off with a ceremony at the corner of Main and University. Choirs from Rochester and Adams high schools sang carols as then-mayor Brad Arnold flipped a switch to turn on the downtown holiday lights.

Shopping wasn’t the only holiday tradition observed by Rochester citizens. They also paid attention to charitable and spiritual matters. The annual Goodfellows newspaper sale funded services to the needy, and built on the Ben Jones Fund, which had begun serving area residents during World War I. Many civic and religious organizations supported a clothing assistance project that was inaugurated during the Depression by Red Knapp, and continues today as The Clothes Closet.

Event Flier

2018 Christmas Parade

Rochester’s churches shared the Christmas message with the community by inviting them to special concerts and programs during the Advent season. The musicians and singers of St. Paul Methodist Church offered an annual Christmas cantata for many years. Beginning in 1964, several church choirs joined the Rochester Tuesday Musicale in an annual community Christmas concert. Now hosted by St. Andrew Catholic Church, the Community Christmas Concert will be held for the 54th year on December 2 at 7:30 p.m.

In recent years, some new traditions have taken root, from the Kris Kringle Market to the Holiday Home Tour and the Rochester Hills Public Library’s Polar Express-inspired trolley ride through the Big, Bright Light Show.

What are your favorite Rochester Christmas memories and traditions? Tell us in the comments.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. I love the parade! I go every year. It’s the best event in Downtown Rochester!

  2. Donald Worrell says:

    Thank you for another fine article by the inimitable local historian and writer, Deborah Larsen. I am officially now in the Christmas spirit!

  3. I love this article and learning of the history of Rochester’s Christmas traditions, but would have like to seen Rochester Garden Club’s Holiday Gifts and Greens Market be included in the last paragraph. This event is in it’s 72nd year and not to be missed by many! The Rochester Garden Club is one of the oldest standing clubs in the area and holds this annual market to give back ALL profits to our community. RGC is a registered 501(c)3 service club.

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      You are so right, Colleen! Thank you for adding another important element to the story. I think it is a good idea to devote an entire future column to the history of the Rochester Garden Club.

  4. The Holiday Home Tour is a production of the Friends of the Rochester Hills Public Library.

    HOLIDAY HOME TOUR RETURNS ON DEC. 9

    The Home Tour stops will be open from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9. Docents will be at each location to guide visitors through and answer questions. HHT helpers will direct visitors to parking. Tickets are $25 per person.
    Tickets, which include a map to the tour homes and the boutique, can be purchased at:
    • The Friends Store inside the Rochester Hills Library lobby, 500 Olde Town, Rochester. (Credit cards, cash and checks OK.)
    • Lytle Drugs, 340 S. Main, Rochester. (Checks or cash only)
    • Sharon’s Hallmark, 115 S. Livernois and Walton at Adams in University Square, Rochester Hills. (Checks or cash only).
    • Dillman & Upton, 607 Woodward, Rochester.
    Online, click on https://rhpl.org/i-am/visit-friends-of-rhpl and then scroll down to click on the special events tab. Payment online is via Pay Pal or credit card.

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