The Origins of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree
By Diane Euston
Today we identify the Mayor’s Christmas Tree as a sight to see at Crown Center. But behind one of the tallest Christmas trees in the nation is a fund that donates money to the less fortunate in Kansas City, and its origins begin 142 years ago. Just as with many of Kansas City’s coveted Christmas traditions, the beginning of this effort started much smaller than what it is today.
The First Reach to Needy Families
In 1878, Kansas City’s population was around 50,000. Even though the city was seeing incredible growth after the arrival of the railroad, there still were residents struggling to get onto their feet.
Facing poverty and unemployment, the less fortunate would show up to the “old shack” of city hall and to the door of Mayor Shelley (1848-1929). Painted above his doorway entrance was a sign that read “All Are Welcome,” and welcoming the less fortunate was something Mayor Shelley certainly did.
George M. Shelley was born in Kentucky in 1848 and moved to Keokuk, Iowa as a child. He attended business college in Chicago and later ended up at Princeton University. He arrived in Kansas City in 1870 and entered the wholesale dry goods business.
A Democrat, Shelley quickly became a respected leader in the community. He was nominated for mayor five times in his life- back in the early days, a term for mayor was just one year. In 1878, he won the election and got straight to work.
Mayor Shelley spent a great deal of time trying to get the unemployed jobs, and the winter of 1878 was especially bad. In those days, the mayor was in charge of charity throughout the city.
In 1925, former Mayor Shelley retold the story in the Kansas City Post of how he came up with the idea for a “Mayor’s Christmas” to commence Christmas Eve 1878. “Many of these persons, especially the jobless, would have no Christmas, I knew, unless the mayor made one possible for them,” Shelley recalled.
Mayor Shelley went out and spent his own money to buy up staple supplies to make baskets for these struggling families. He made a list of the heads of household that he knew needed help so he could track who would receive a basket.
In addition to shopping for food for the less fortunate, Mayor Shelley purchased 50 cords of wood and stored it openly in the old public square- now the location of the City Market.
The police warned the mayor that he should probably put a guard out there to protect his massive pile of wood, because in the middle of the night, thieves were stealing from his stockpile.
They didn’t get the mayor’s point.
“That’s why I put the wood out there for- so those who needed it could get it,” Shelley told the Kansas City Post. “Warm folks do not steal wood.”
While that wood pile stood unguarded, Mayor Shelley was busy at work trying to get the community to help him.
The Kansas City Times wrote Dec. 17 that the mayor was asking citizens to “send to the mayor’s office on Christmas Eve and morning, baskets of cooked provisions, quantity and variety unrestricted, the distribution of which will then be made under direction of the mayor.”
The Execution to Feed the Hungry for Christmas
On Christmas Eve inside the old courthouse’s council room, one side of the room was piled high with bags of flour. Around 400 baskets were filled personally by Mayor Shelley and a few willing helpers. A long table was erected so that three butchers could cut off meat to give out to people.
Mayor Shelley originally had a list of the neediest and had set to deliver the baskets to them, but he knew that many in need weren’t on his list. Thus, he offered for anyone who was struggling to come down Christmas Day and pick up food and provisions.
The mayor and his helpers worked until 9:30 p.m. carefully assembling baskets as those in need came in and out of the little room. Gas lights weren’t allowed inside the old building, so the staff worked under the glow of candlelight.
As they set to close up for the evening, Mayor Shelley suddenly thought of the people that were literally right underneath his feet. Housed in the largest room in the city jail in the basement where he stood was what they called the “Tramp’s Room.” The room was used in the cold of winter to house the most destitute.
Before they left that Christmas Eve, Mayor Shelley promptly sent down two baskets to the Tramp’s Room. “Such a surprised rush of hungry men was never before made for a supper,” the Kansas City Times reported.
It is said that 16 men gobbled up the contents of the baskets in eight minutes flat.
At that first charitable Christmas arranged by Mayor Shelley, 322 families- 1,309 Kansas Citians- were given a Christmas meal.
“It is pleasanter to give than to receive, and it is hoped the system of holiday charities, which may be said to have been inaugurated by Mayor Shelley, shall be continued by his successors,” the Kansas City Times wrote in 1878.
The Second Year of Feeding Families
The first year was such a success that Mayor Shelley decided to make feeding the city’s hungry on Christmas an annual tradition. The council room wasn’t large enough for the mayor’s vision, so he decided to move it to Turner Hall at 10th and Main St.
The hall was “gaily decorated” for the occasion. A large star was hung from the ceiling and draped with evergreens. A large bell was hung on the other side, and as people entered, it was set to “ring a merry Christmas chime to the poor.” Candle-lighted Christmas trees completed the decorations.
These trees in 1879 can be considered the first ever Mayor’s Christmas Tree- even though there was more than one and they weren’t the centerpiece of the event. The real highlight was the 350 baskets full of meat, vegetables, coffee, tea, sugar and canned goods. Over 1,000 people showed up, and entertainment included city employees (including the mayor) taking turns dressed as Santa Claus.
Mayor Shelley decided not to run for office again in 1880, and Charles A. Chace was elected. Unfortunately, Mayor Chace didn’t opt to keep up with the mission of feeding the less fortunate on Christmas. It is reported that people would go to his office and ask for food, fuel and a place to stay, but Chace said he couldn’t do much to help them.
In that same year, the Tramp’s Room was discontinued by the city council.
It would take 15 more mayors and 27 years for the resurrection of Mayor George M. Shelley’s vision.
The Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund is Created
In 1908, Thomas Theodore “T.T.” Crittenden, Jr. (1863-1938) was elected Kansas City’s 35th mayor.
Born in Springfield, Ill., Crittenden was raised in Warrensburg, Mo. and attended the University of Missouri. His father was governor of Missouri from 1881-1885. He arrived in Kansas City in 1884 and served as clerk of the Jackson County Court from 1894 to 1900.
Many important projects were implemented during his two years in office. Elected in 1908, Mayor Crittenden got approval for Union Station to be built, made many city improvements and worked with Thomas Swope on his donation of 1,200 acres to build a park.
His real legacy was his creation of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund in 1908. Its beginnings start with an organization wanting to offer poor children a place to receive some holiday cheer.
In 1906, the Fraternal Order of the Eagles arranged a Christmas Tree in their lodge at 11th and Central. They carefully selected needy children to come to a celebration so they could receive gifts. It was such a success that the following year, children living in orphan’s homes were invited.
Mayor Crittenden served on the committee alongside the Fraternal Order of the Eagles.
The idea for the fund was recalled in the Kansas City Post. While sitting in his office, Mayor Crittenden wondered how he could reach thousands of children who otherwise wouldn’t have a Christmas in 1908.
He asked his friend, “What do you think of a municipal Christmas tree for every poor child in the city?” His friend thought it was a great idea.
Mayor Crittenden began making plans and pleaded to Kansas Citians to help him fill up his fund. He was able to raise $10,000 for the first Mayor’s Christmas Tree celebration at Convention Hall.
It was planned that every child in attendance on that Christmas Day 1908 would receive a bag full of treats. “Each received five toys with a game, a box of candy, nuts, an orange and a banana,” the Kansas City Times wrote.
At that first event and until 1922, “a troupe of clowns was present to convulse the children with mirth by the clowns’ antics, their band and their stunts.”
Mayor Crittenden later recalled that first event at Convention Hall where children showed up in droves wearing tattered clothes and shoes, each with a “gleam of expectation in their eye.”
In truth, the first event was packed to the brim with children from all over the area hoping to get their treats. Over 5,000 children showed up, and to the mayor’s dismay, 2,000 children were turned away when they ran out of gifts.
The 2,000 children were invited to return the next day after the mayor’s staff scrambled to make it right. They all received their Christmas gifts.
The Evolution of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree and the Fund
From 1908 to 1935, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree event was held at Convention Hall. When Convention Hall (now the site of Barney Allis Plaza) was replaced by Municipal Auditorium, the event was held there.
Mayor H. Roe Bartle (1901-1974) was the first to shake things up when it came to the tradition of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund.
The focus of the fund had always been on children, but in 1955, Mayor Bartle threw a curveball and decided to focus on the elderly. He invited the elderly to City Hall to celebrate.
The following year, he went with the same format and distributed packages to the elderly. Instead of a large event, he had Christmas music broadcast from speakers on top of the Liberty Memorial.
Even though the original focus of children was temporarily abandoned, Mayor Bartle was the first mayor to bring upon a new tradition to Kansas City. In 1957, a 30-foot tall tree was placed in Municipal Auditorium Plaza Park. The first time there was a public ceremony with the mayor lighting the tree was started by H. Roe Bartle.
The event was such a success that the following year in 1958 – the 50th anniversary of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund- a 35-foot tall tree was cut down from Swope Park and lit by Mayor Bartle.
In 1959, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree was moved to Gillham Park at 39th and Gillham. For the first year, a massive Nativity scene was added with real people and real animals to accent the large tree in the park. The Nativity scene continued for years following.
The tree stood every year until 1973 at Gillham Park when Crown Center was chosen as its permanent location. In 1981, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund began making a commemorative ornament made out of the prior year’s tree that people could purchase for $5.50 and raise money for this charitable cause. The tradition continues today.
Remembering the Beginnings of a Worthy Cause
Today, a 100-foot tall Christmas tree- one of the tallest in the nation- stands in Crown Center, a symbol of 112 years of the charitable giving of 19 mayors who have served as organizers of this event. The mission of “assisting the city’s less fortunate” continues by aiding both children and the elderly.
Whether a basketful of food in 1878 or a sack full of toys for children in 1908, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund continues as a staple of Kansas City’s kindness.
In 1879, the Kansas City Times noted how important the act of giving was for those who needed help, and this stands as a testament even today. “And so the merry Christmas tide flows on and floods the city like a shower of sunshine.”
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com