Perkasie is known in Upper Bucks County for its public events that draw thousands of visitors to town each year. But no event outshines Perkasie’s oldest event: the annual community Christmas Tree lighting.
On a winter day each December, more than 5,000 people gather at 7th and Market streets to watch Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus arrive on a borough-owned electric-service bucket truck. The crowd cheers as Santa climbs in the bucket to the tree’s top and it roars after Santa hits a switch to light the tree — continuing a tradition dating back more than 100 years.
The annual event has gained popularity over time and is one of the few post-Victorian traditions still observed in Perkasie. Samuel R. Kramer, one of the Perkasie Central News’s founders, started the community tree event more than 110 years ago. Kramer organized the early events along with the Perkasie Owls’ Santa Claus Committee.
Perkasie did not invent community Christmas tree events during the December holiday season. In Sterling, Illinois, the Lions Club sponsored a holiday tree for children in December in the 1870s, as did some California towns a decade later. Community trees were known in New England, North Dakota, and other states before Perkasie had its event.
Perkasie’s unique claim is that the borough was the first town with a community tree with electric lights. As of today, no conclusive evidence has emerged to dispute that claim.
When that first Christmas event was held in Perkasie remains unclear today, based on three published accounts. In 1934, Kramer told the Central News the first event was in 1909. “Christmas morning, 1909, found about two hundred children in front of the post office in Jos. G. Moyer’s building, and about nine o’ clock a team of black horses, hitched to an antique high back sleigh, loaded with gifts. … At Sellersville, the same program was enacted, only with new characters.”
However, the Central News’s first report of that event placed the celebration in December 1910. “Christmas morning, about 8 o’clock, several hundred children were gathered at the post-office corner to see Santa Claus. Suddenly up Market street came an old-fashioned sleigh with pound boxes of candy, and oranges,” the newspaper said. “About the same program was observed at Sellersville.”
In 1939, Central News editor John Sprenkel recalled the first ceremony, and he thought it was held in 1910. “It was S.R. ‘Dick’ Kramer, former publisher of The Central News, … who conceived and successfully promoted the plan here,” Sprenkel wrote. “It was at this time we first heard of a Community Christmas program with a great big tree, outdoors, attractively illuminated with electric lights.”
Regardless of the event’s first date, a community Christmas tree ceremony with electric lights was celebrated in Perkasie at least three years before Philadelphia adopted the custom to use electricity to light its community tree. Philadelphia’s tree debuted with “thousands of bulbs” on Christmas Eve in 1913, said The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In the following years, some tree ceremonies in Perkasie had additional significance. In 1918, World War I veterans were the special guests at an expanded holiday event, which included patriotic songs. During the 1920s and 1930s, the tree made its debut on the first weekend of December at the Reading Railroad station, “resplendent with colored lights and topped by a brilliant star.” The annual Christmas Tree ceremony was a little dimmer in 1942 when outdoor lights weren’t placed on the community tree due to blackout regulations.
During the 1950s, a 35-foot high tree remained at the train station. Later, the Community Tree was located next to the South Perkasie Covered Bridge, which had been moved to Lenape Park in 1958. In 1981, Shelley and Sons donated the use of its land at 7th and Market streets for the planting of a permanent community Christmas tree sponsored by the Pennridge Chamber of Commerce.
In 1991, the Perkasie Olde Town Association, a group formed to rebuild downtown Perkasie after a devastating fire in 1988, started the current version of Perkasie’s community Christmas tree event. “We prayed and held our breath to see the community support,” recalled co-organizer Neil Schwan in 1995.
In recent years, Perkasie Borough has taken over the event after it outgrew the Olde Towne group. This year’s ceremony will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday Dec. 2. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will arrive on a Perkasie Electric Truck to light the tree at 7 p.m. with the help of one lucky child picked from the crowd. Samuel “Dick” Kramer would be proud.
Scott Bomboy is the chair of Perkasie Council’s Historical Committee, and he has written two books about Perkasie’s history.
“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.