Oakland's Christmas Pageant was performed annually from 1919 to 1987. Nearly 2,000 Oakland elementary and junior high school students from schools across the city presented the pageant as "a gift to the city" each year. The pageant was organized by the Recreation Department, and later by the Parks and Recreation Department after the two merged in 1968. The Oakland History Center is lucky to have a large collection of materials about the Christmas Pageant and its long-time director Louise Jorgensen.
The pageant consisted of a series of dances tied together by a vague plot. The performances packed the 6,042 seats of the Oakland Auditorium arena with family members eager to catch a glimpse of their child dancing as a snowflake, penguin, elf, or other holiday character.
There were a few adults performing in the pageant as well. Louise Jorgensen appeared every year as The Spirit of Christmas. Various community leaders took roles like Santa Claus and Father Time. Perhaps the most notable Santa was Alameda County District Attorney - and later Supreme Court Justice - Earl Warren in 1937. A professional orchestra played live music to accompany the sometimes unpredictable child performers, and a narrator gave a brief explanatory introduction to each number.
The pageant programs below are one highlight of our collection, with beautiful designs usually created by high school and community college students. Here's a sampling, with one program from each decade:
Louise Jorgensen, of the Recreation Department, was the driving force behind the pageant. She found her calling early, graduating from Oakland Tech in 1916 and starting her life-long affiliation with the Christmas Pageant in 1919. Jorgensen choreographed every pageant, traveling to schools throughout the city to teach children their parts and lead rehearsals each year. With nearly 2,000 children in each year's pageant, and only a few years skipped because of World War II, by 1987 Jorgensen had taught dances to nearly 130,000 children. Jorgensen also led a May Festival for several years and taught regular (non-pageant-related) dance classes to children through the Recreation Department. Although Jorgensen certainly didn't make the pageant happen on her own, it's no coincidence that the pageant's end in 1987 coincided with her retirement.
In the beginning, the pageant was a somewhat smaller production with several schools and community groups coming together to create a performance of folk dances with holiday themes. In 1926 the "Light of the World" theme was introduced, with sections about the sun and storms, light, Santa and his toys, and finally a Nativity scene. Every subsequent pageant retained the structure introduced in 1926, with only minor updates throughout the years. The pageant was re-named the Children's Holiday Pageant in 1982, in a nod to the separation of church and state. However, the content of the pageant remained the same, including the Nativity section at the end. This continuity allowed costumes and props to be re-used and replaced many times rather than being completely redesigned each year, and made it possible for Louise Jorgensen to stage this immense production year after year.
Another highlight of the Oakland History Center's Christmas Pageant collection is an illustrated inventory of each Pageant costume, drawn by costumer Virginia Anderson before her retirement in 1967. A few excerpts are included below:
There were a few attempts to revive the pageant in a more inclusive, less Christmas-focused way. A new production in 1992, and Holiday Festivals in 2005 and 2006, featured multicultural dances with no Santa Claus or Nativity scene. However, the revivals were short-lived and much smaller in scale. Nothing has yet matched the spectacle or the broad community engagement of Louise Jorgensen's Christmas Pageant.
If this blog post has sparked your curiosity, why not watch a video of the 1981 Christmas Pageant from our collection on California Revealed? You can also make an appointment to visit us in the Oakland History Center to see more from the Louise Jorgensen / Christmas Pageant Collection. We have 34 boxes of photographs, sheet music, newspaper clippings, reminiscences, and more. The book Oakland's Christmas Pageant, 1919-1987 is also available for checkout.