When thinking of Christmas and the holiday season, it’s hard not to envision beautifully decorated stores, familiar songs of the season, and despite the rise of online shopping, people drifting between stores trying to find the perfect gift. These images perfectly describe the scenes visible in Westerly over the last century and a half which persist to this day. Today, we will look at the way the holidays have been celebrated over the years.
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At its very core, Christmas is a religious celebration, and for this reason, celebrations in Westerly often involved local churches and religious groups. Through the early 20th-century, Christmas celebrations at local churches were often held on the week leading up to, and sometimes after, the holiday.
In 1873, at least seven local parishes held Christmas events. Three of these churches, the Calvary Baptist Church, the Seventh Day Baptist Church, and the Episcopal Church, held their festivities at Armory Hall.  Only two churches had detailed descriptions of the events to be held published in local newspapers.
The Methodist Church held a festival on Christmas Day which was to include “a tree, a supper, and perhaps some literary exercises.”  The Congregational Church was set to hold a festival with entertainment at the church. 
In the 1890’s, it was was fairly common for churches to bring in a preacher from out of town to conduct Christmas masses. In 1893, preachers from as close by as Woodville and as far away as Rochester, New York, made their way to Westerly for the holiday.  According to an account by Sallie Coy, in the first decade of the 20th-century, schools in Westerly were still holding reenactments of the biblical story of Christmas, a practice which continued for many years, and in 1949,  the Westerly Sun highlighted the manger scene produced by the Church of the Immaculate Conception. 
Christmas has always brought people together, and as a result, throughout history, parties and entertainment have been central to local holiday celebrations. In 1885, the Westerly Roller Rink, which later became Bliven’s Opera House (For more on the Opera House, click here), was the site of an afternoon party on Christmas afternoon. All who attended were given an umbrella and a photo album, and attendees were treated to live music and skating as well as the opportunity to meet Santa Claus in person. 
While it may seem odd that such an event would be held on Christmas Day, at the turn of the century, observance of Christmas did not usually begin until Christmas Eve and often lasted through New Year’s Day.  Children’s Christmas parties were also quite common at the time, as Sallie Coy also recalled attending a party at 42 Elm Street, where there was ice cream, animals, Santa Clauses, trees and stars. 
Christmas carols and concerts of holiday music could always be found on calendars throughout December. In 1927, there was a Christmas Song Festival held at the United Theater which was put on by the YWCA. The event also benefited the community, as donations for the People’s Mission, a local charity group, were collected.  In addition to these concerts, in later years, further entertainment could be found at Christmas dances held at Westerly High School and concerts by the Chorus of Westerly who performed Mozart’s Mass and the annual Christmas Pops. 
Christmas is also a holiday centered around gift giving and receiving, making shopping and advertising a significant part of holiday preparations. While local stores composed the bulk of advertising in Westerly’s newspapers before 1900, retailers as far as Providence promoted their products, likely in anticipation of Westerly residents traveling to the city by train for a day of shopping.  In the 1890s, items as wide-ranging as domestic and imported fruits, canned turkey, chicken, and tongue, and ice skates and sleds could be seen advertised in the Westerly Sun. 
In the era before electric lighting was prevalent, many people would walk the streets with only the lights in window displays to guide them, as gas lamps often did not provide nearly enough visibility.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, people would find themselves walking downtown past beautifully decorated stores with magnificent displays. 
By the early 1900s, a shift in trends was apparent based upon the items prominently advertised locally. Gift ideas for children were hardly in short supply, as there were promotions for Dunning’s ‘Toy Wonderland’ at 42 Main Street and numerous stores showcasing their confections and candy for both children and adults.  For older loved ones, Silverstein Brothers on West Broad Street advertised their selection of ‘Christmas furs.’  For those looking to unwind after a busy Christmas day, they could easily go downtown to see a specially priced ‘Christmas matinee’ moving picture at A.O.H. Hall. 
One look at the Westerly Sun in December 1927, and the economic prosperity prior to the Great Depression would be obvious. Over the course of the month, the newspaper published a Christmas shopping guide which provided readers with the ultimate roadmap for local shopping. The wide range of items featured included handmade needle crafts, singing canaries, cigars, and even suggested giving a child the gift of a savings account at one of Westerly’s many local banks. 
By this time, Christmas shopping had become more of an event than ever before, a fact all the more apparent by Santa Claus’ appearance at the P.H. Opie Company. The store invited children to come meet Santa and “shake hands with him.” 
In the post-World War II era, automobiles were accessible to the masses, and as a result, Christmas events were held all throughout the town. In 1949, the Westerly Sun published a column dedicated to the noteworthy decorated doorways which all could go see.
That same year, the Christmas spirit was on display, as the Westerly Parent Teacher Association conducted a program in which 115 children in foster homes were given donated gifts. They were aided in their efforts by students from Westerly High School who held a tag day and raised $80 which they used to purchased toys to donate. 
Although much has changed over the last 150 years, much of what made Christmas such a special time of year has remained the same. Each year, people across Westerly are brought together by their love for one another and the joy that the holiday inspires.