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The night the lights came on in Newberg

Fire department continues its tradition of hanging decorations downtown


For most of us, Christmas is a time of celebration, and in this last column for 2013, I want to celebrate the Newberg Fire Department’s tradition of decorating our city with lights, scrolls and wreaths each holiday season.

Rather than talk about what happens today, which has been covered often by this newspaper, I’d like to go back to the beginning and give my version of how the tradition started.

The date was Tuesday, Christmas Eve, 1929. Because the paper you’re now holding is dated Tuesday, Christmas Eve, 2013, we’re 84 years to the day removed from when it all began.

Prior to 1929, the concept of a Christmas symbol belonging to everyone was not a part of the Grubby End culture.

Celebrations involving more than the individual family were typically church affairs. Denominations marked the holly jolly season with religious services, choir and orchestra concerts, special yuletide lectures, door-to-door caroling, eats, treats and everything in between.

In the meantime, the practice of decorating a large tree, then putting it in the middle of a downtown street to arouse the Christmas spirit throughout an entire community, had become trendy in other Oregon locations.

Not to be outdone, during the late fall of 1929, the local fire boys decided Newberg should do the same, but deferred taking action on the activity. Their hope was that some other local organization would like the idea and pick up where the fire department had left off.

It wasn’t that the guys were lazy, it’s just that, in addition to fighting fires and providing other rescue type services for the city, the firemen were busy sponsoring a three-act play titled, “Headstrong Joan.” Recruiting the players, holding rehearsals and selling tickets left little time for anything extra.

Now if this sounds a little bit out of character for a fire department, remember, the decade of the 1920s was the golden age of community theater in small-town America, with everyone (pardon the pun) getting in on the act. Often, the productions were fund-raisers; they were always goodwill raisers.

The latter was certainly true of the Newberg Fire Department, as it was always looking for ways to present a good image of itself to townsfolk who, more often than not, considered recruits, in the words of a Graphic reporter about this time, a “rough and ready bunch, too often criticized rather than praised.”

At some point, this whole Christmas tree idea became a textbook example of the old axiom, “If it’s everybody’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility.” As Christmas week approached, not one group had stepped forward to help out.

To remedy the situation, the fire department quickly assembled a committee, secured a big tree in the local woods and named it the “Community Tree.” It was hauled to downtown on Christmas Eve and put in the middle of the street at the intersection of Howard and First streets, right in front of City Hall.

With financial assistance from the Chamber of Commerce, 1,000 bags stuffed with a candy, nuts and oranges were assembled for the kids.

When the tree lights finally came on, blinking and twinkling their Christmas magic to the crowd, the Claude Cummings Orchestra played “Holy Night” and the party was on.

After greetings by Pacific College (now George Fox University) President Levi Pennington, the Junior Leaguers of the Methodist Episcopal Church contributed more carols.

And then … finally … the big man with the red suit made his entrance. The kids squealed with delight.

Friends and relatives of George Candeaux, the man behind the white beard, gave a knowing smile.

The firemen shook hands and patted each another on the back.

And all was right with the world.

The Graphic reported later: “The firemen are giving notice they will hold a community Christmas tree and program again next year and with an early start they anticipate an even more successful event.”

Indeed!

Merry Christmas everyone and a special holiday greeting to retired Newberg Fire Chief Al Blodgett, who has done so very much for more than 50 years to help keep this decorating tradition alive.

George Edmonston Jr. lives in Newberg and is the retired editor of OSU’s alumni magazine, The Oregon Stater. He first began contributing local history features to this newspaper in 1995. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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