Christmas in McHenry

01 December 2008
Written by 
Published in History
The true spirit of the holiday season remains largely unchanged.

Every town has its own Christmas story…or, rather, countless Christmas stories.

And, while eBay has replaced the Sears “Wish Book Catalog,” and Red Ryder BB guns may not turn up on quite so many letters to Santa today as Wii Rock Band 2, when you stop and listen to the childhood stories of those who grew up in your hometown so many years ago, one thing rings true: the true spirit of the holiday season remains largely unchanged.

Ice Skating Down Main Street
Christmastime evokes fond memories in the McHenry. Growing up along the Fox River provided plenty of yuletide fun for kids of all ages. Martha Peters, one of six Thennes children, distinctly remembers McHenry holiday scenes like ice skating down Main Street and the annual Christmas Parade.
“But the real fun,” said Peters, “started right at home.”
“Our dad must have been the first to go all out with the Christmas decorations. This was a big deal in the 1950s, when you made everything yourself. Each year, he tried to change it. Dad even had a mechanical Santa. Its arm moved and I think its leg, too.”
“One year, he had a sign that he unscrambled the letters on each day until it read “Merry Xmas,” like the Wheel of Fortune, only our dad was doing it in the ’50s.” “The biggest hit was the deer. Yes, we had live deer at our home. Our uncle was a priest—Father Clarence. He liked to get into different things, and rescuing deer was something he just liked to have fun with”
“These deer—stray fawns or the occasional Dasher, Dancer or Prancer who’d survived an unfortunate encounter with an automobile—found their way to a pen at Ed’s Rental off Route 120. [Ed was the Thennes children’s father, and Ed’s Rental remains a family-owned business to this day.] Come Christmastime, the pen found its way to Ed’s front yard.”
“He penned the deer up in our front lawn, and we had feed for neighbors. Everybody wanted to come see the ‘reindeer.’ Dad charged a nickel to feed the deer because if it was free, people would do it too much and the deer would get sick. One time, a deer actually did get sick, so people bought pellets to feed the deer from a gumball machine.”
“My house today is all Christmas,” Peters, who inherited her dad’s ornamental zeal, now boasts. “People say it should be in magazines. I have 12 Christmas trees inside my home every year, but only one is real. And, no live deer.”

’Twas the Night before Christmas
Homes and businesses across McHenry wholly embraced the holiday spirit.
“The night before Christmas, we’d always drive around to see all the lights,” remembers Nancy Fike, now director of the McHenry County Historical Society. “At our home it was an excuse to get the kids out of the house.”
“We opened gifts on Christmas Eve. Dad would take us out to see the lights around town, and sure enough, when we arrived back home, Santa had visited. Just then, Mom would hurry to the window, ‘Look! I think I see his sleigh.’”
Some Christmases were more memorable than others.
“The Christmas of 1955, my dad packed us up in the family Ford. We went to downtown Chicago to see the Marshall Field’s window displays and experience what the song ‘Silver Bells’ is all about. Neither my dad nor my younger brother, Mike, were what you’d call shoppers. But, as we were cutting through the bargain basement at Field’s, I spotted the most beautiful blue velvet Peter Pan collar with rhinestones. This I could not live without!”
“Dad said it costs too much. Mom said it would have to be dry-cleaned. Mike just said, ‘Let’s go home.’ It was enough to plead and cry for, which I promptly did. All for nothing—the collar stayed put in the bargain basement, and we left.”
“Back in McHenry...you know the rest of the story—maybe you’ve been there yourself—Christmas Eve, Santa’s visit, unwrapped presents...and no special blue velvet collar. But wait, one more hidden small wrapped box—no fancy Christmas bags or designer boxes back then—one totally surprised emotional teenage girl and that special Christmas gift she still remembers out of all the years of gift giving.”
“Everybody should have a special memory like that,” Fike said, “one cherished Christmas gift that stands out from all the years of childhood.”

Ham, Turkey and the Whole Bit
Donald Doherty, mayor of McHenry from 1961 to 1973, remembers viewing the holiday lights on a frosty Christmas Eve.
“It was a busy night,” he said, “a lot happening around town at Christmastime.”
“The Chamber sponsored a Christmas lights contest for residential homes. They appointed two or three judges—I did it one year—and a winner was chosen. A prize was given, a plaque. The thing to do Christmas Eve was to go around town and see all the lights.” “Christmas was always big at our home. With ten kids, it was a real commercial operation for me and Rosalie, my wife. The oldest is 56 today and the youngest 40. Today, there are 42 of us, including 20 grandchildren. We all go to our daughter’s house on Christmas Eve. Santa makes an appearance, and we have ham, turkey...the whole bit. Of course, our kids are all grown now—they go their own way on Christmas Day.”
One McHenry tradition Martha, Nancy and Donald all remember fondly—a tradition dating to the 1950s—was the Old Bridge Tavern and its Christmas tree. This friendly watering hole, still operating today, is housed in the oldest frame building in McHenry County.
Each year, the pub’s owner anchored a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and lighting, to the Fox River. Each year, invariably, tavern patrons and other townspeople exchanged a wager or two as to when the ice would break, sending the tree down the river and signifying the official end of the holiday season.
That old-time holiday cheer is still alive and well in McHenry. November 16 marked the 21st annual McHenry Christmas Walk. It featured all the nostalgia of Christmas parades past—Santa and his elves, wagon rides and the Charles Dickens Carolers—as well as more than 300 motorcyclists bearing Toys for Tots.
“People really look forward to this,” said Bob Novak of the McHenry Downtown Business Association. “It’s a fun day.”
December 24 is still a good time to bundle up the family, drive around town and judge for yourself who has the best Christmas decorations.

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