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Riverside’s White Park and the history of an early “Festival of Lights”

A look into the origins of one of the nation's largest holiday light displays located in the heart of Riverside.

A 1913 black and white photograph of the first decorated community Christmas tree in White Park.
On Dec. 24, 1913, Riversiders gathered for the first community Christmas event in White Park.

In 1913, the Riverside Business Men’s Association had proposed to use Riverside’s White Park as the site of a massive Christmas event. It would be the first of its kind. At the time, the Press-Enterprise even predicted it to be the greatest outdoor Christmas event ever held in the city. 

After serious planning, the audacious plan was pulled off. The event had marked an early “Festival of Lights.” 

That year, beginning on December 15, varied colored lights accustomed with evergreen wreaths had decorated Main Street from Sixth to Tenth, lit up Seventh Street (now Mission Inn Avenue) from Market to Orange, Eighth Street (now University Avenue) from Main to Lemon and were strung on Ninth Street from Orange to White Park’s entrance. Complete with choirs, the Riverside Military Academy band and carol singing, a tree lighting ceremony was to be hosted at the park on Christmas night. All the lights remained lit until January 1. 

For the tree lighting, the men’s association chose to decorate a 50 to 60 foot Evergreen in White Park. The group handed this task to Charles G. Rouse, a former owner of Rouse’s Department Store, now the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. The tree would be decorated with over 300 red and green lights, tinsel and an array of Christmas ornaments. The “Star of Bethlehem,” a 4-foot star with 39 tungsten lights and a total candle power of 300, was mounted on the top.

Due to unforeseen rain, the ceremony was moved to Saturday, December 27. Though original plans were derailed, execution of the event was not. The Christmas festivity ultimately saw a total of approximately 350 participants. Individuals had moved among the assembled crowd, twisting along the paths until they came to stand around the decorated Christmas tree. They enjoyed a harmless punch of English Wassail placed in a large bowl by the tree.  

A short processional pageant parade included Company M of the Riverside Militia, Boy Scouts of America, Campfire Girls (now Camp Fire), the St. Francis de Sales Choir of Riverside’s oldest Catholic church, the choir of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Riverside and school children who represented various nations. 

The Cantadores Club, a choir made up of forty male singers, accepted an invitation to lead the event’s musical performance. Its members had dressed in the garb of Medieval monks. The military band played Jakob Mendelssohn’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” followed by soloists, a cornet solo and a quartet to perform various Christmas carols. The night ended with the quartet singing a rendition of “Silent Night.”