Commentary: The return of a tradition

by John Neiuber

Recently I was watching a talk show host shake hands with a guest. This host had thought, and often stated so publicly, that shaking hands was an archaic tradition. The host said that with the pandemic and the inability to have human contact, not shaking hands had a profound effect on him, and he had changed his thinking.

It is often little things like shaking hands that point out to us a greater need. During the last two years, we have missed human contact; we have missed gathering with our family, friends, co-workers and groups to which we belong. It is a human condition, pointed out by Aristotle over 2,300 years ago.

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either beast or a god.”

In October, trick-or-treaters returned, albeit not in the numbers we were used to on Indian Hill — we only had about 1,300! It was great to see the children back and our own grandchildren insisted their parents bring them to Claremont to trick-or-treat. It is their favorite place for holidays. The Claremont Chamber of Commerce also staged a very successful Village Venture. The community came out and one could see people genuinely pleased and happy to greet and interact with others. It was a reunion of sorts.

On December 3, another Claremont tradition returned — the holiday promenade and tree lighting, a program organized by the city’s human services department, and sponsored by the city, the Village Marketing Group and the DoubleTree by Hilton, Claremont. The event, which ran from 5 to 8 p.m. featured the tree lighting ceremony at the Deport, participating Village businesses as cheer stops providing free holiday treats and deals, caroling and entertainment at the Depot, and, the always popular Santa at city hall for photo opportunities.

An annual community holiday celebration has been a tradition in Claremont since 1889, when Christmas that year saw the beginnings of the annual celebration with a program of music held in Claremont Hall (now Sumner Hall) on December 19 at Pomona College. The Christmas celebration was later moved to Holmes Hall (now demolished) and continued there for many years. The Christmas party at Holmes Hall included narrated pantomimes, hymns, Christmas carols and Christmas stories, followed by a visit from Santa Claus who arrived with a sack full of candy and presents for the children. It was reported that Santa had to arrive by climbing through a window because Holmes Hall had no chimney. During this time a charity bazaar was held annually in the Renwick Gymnasium (now demolished) and was a chief source of gifts in Claremont.

The annual, college-sponsored party was held for many years until it was taken over by the Claremont Volunteer Fire Department around 1920. The party became a project of William “Doc” Blanchard, who was a professor of music and a member of the volunteer fire department. Blanchard recruited volunteers from the community to help in the now larger celebration. Much like the college party, the community celebration had entertainment, skits, stories, and featured the Pomona College orchestra, with the highlight being the visit from Santa who gave the children candy. This event continued until the 1960s when the city established its professional fire department and the volunteer fire department was dissolved and the city took over such celebrations.

One of the traditions of the Padua Hills Theatre and the Mexican Players was the staging of “Las Posadas,” originally part of a Christmas offering known as “Mi Rancho Bonito” in 1932, but staged under the “Las Posadas”title beginning in 1934. “Las Posadas,” with its roots in Spain, has been a tradition in Mexico for 400 years. It means “the inns” or “the shelters” in Spanish, and the original religious and social celebration took place over nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve. It commemorates Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for shelter prior to the birth of Christ. The story was adapted to the stage by Bess Garner and the Mexican Players and was a crowd favorite each year until the theater closed in 1974. For the past few years Claremont Heritage has been producing “Las Posadas” again at the Padua Hills Theatre.

Beginning in 1906, the newly built Claremont Inn began hosting Christmas dinners. The Inn became the center of the community, thus cementing a close relationship between residents and the college in the early days. One would find students, faculty and townspeople coming together to socialize and enjoy the holiday fare. In 1906, Christmas dinner was just 75 cents and would increase to only $1.25 by 1940. In 1912, the Inn expanded from 12 guest rooms to accommodations for 40 guests and the expanded dining facilities could serve up to 250 people. The menu would not change much over the next 62 years until the dining room closed in 1968, the year the Inn was demolished:

• Bouillon
• Sweet pickles
• Celery
• Mission olives
• Salad – Lettuce mayonnaise
• Roast turkey with walnut dressing
• Cranberry sauce
• Roast loin of pork with applesauce
• Mashed potatoes
• Browned sweet potatoes
• French peas
• Mince pie
• Pumpkin pie
• Ice cream and cake

The Holiday Promenade and Tree Lighting event marks the return of a community tradition that has been part of the cultural fabric of Claremont for the past 132 years. Keeping in mind what Aristotle had to say, “I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be neither a beast nor a god, and certainly not be beneath notice or more than human. We can leave the antisocial to the sociopaths. Society is something that definitely precedes the individual. We are social animals. We gather together. We always have, we always will.”


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