The Ghost of Christmas Pageants Past

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.

Large group of children filling the floor of a large arena.
Fairies performing to a full house at the Oakland Auditorium in a 1920s Christmas Pageant. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 14.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

A large arena with seats full of spectators. An orchestra plays in the foreground, a large Christmas tree stands in the center, and a large group of costumed children dances in the background.
The orchestra playing as fairies dance in an early 1950s Christmas Pageant. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 14.5. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

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: 

Program for 1919 Christmas Pageant with illustration of holly sprigs
1919 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1929 Christmas Pageant with illustration of woman in holiday robes and crown
1929 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1939 Christmas Pageant with illustration of a fairy queen
1939 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box13.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1949 Christmas Pageant with illustration of toys parading behind a Christmas tree
1949 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1959 Christmas Pageant with illustration of an angel ringing a bell
1959 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1969 Christmas Pageant with illustration of a dove
1969 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1979 Christmas Pageant with illustration of a tree branch
1979 Oakland Christmas Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.2. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Program for 1987 Christmas Pageant with illustration of carolers
1987 Oakland Children's Holiday Pageant program cover. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 13.2. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

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. 

Large group of children in costumes, standing next to signs with the names of their schools.
Excited student performers from Stonehurst and Whittier schools backstage, c1948. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 17.2. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

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.

Teenager wearing a sun-like crown and sitting in a throne, flanked by a court of costumed teenagers.
The Sun and Her Rays, 1969. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 17.1. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

A group of children looking at actors portraying a Nativity scene on a small stage.
The Christmas Pageant Nativity scene, c1950s. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 14.5. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Five children decorating a sphere with a hinged lid to look like a snowball.
Preparing the snowball for the Snow Queen of the 1949 Christmas Pageant. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 14.3. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Teenager in white tutu and crown climbing down a ladder leading out of a large snowball. Another teenager in a blue and white costume, holds her hand as she descends.
A Snow Queen descends from her Snowball, c1960s. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 14.2. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

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: 

Illustrations of costumes for court of the sun characters in Oakland's Christmas Pageant
Drawings of Christmas Pageant Sun Rays costumes by Virginia Anderson, c1967. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 26. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Illustrations of costumes for various toy characters in Oakland's Christmas Pageant
Drawings of Christmas Pageant Toys costumes by Virginia Anderson, c1967. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 26. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Illustration of two snow people costumes for children.
Drawings of Christmas Pageant Snow Men and Ladies costumes by Virginia Anderson, c1967. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 26. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

Illustrations of costumes for the rain leader - a seafoam green leotard with skirt, cape, and headdress - and lightning - a blue unitard and cone-shaped hat with lightning bolt patterns and handheld streamers.
Drawings of Christmas Pageant Rain Leader and Lightning costumes by Virginia Anderson, c1967. OHC COLL 2014-17, Box 26. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center.

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. 

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