It seems that Galesburg, in the mid-1800s, did not celebrate Christmas. It was contrary to the puritanical teachings of Gale and the other New England Christians that settled the isolated piece of prairie that was to become Galesburg. This isolation, without navigable river, without canal, and without rail, provided the opportunity to allow their version of religion to prevail, unchallenged by competition or new ideas. These early colonizers were there to build a town in the Midwest in their own image. It would have a religious college. It would be their town, their college, and teach their beliefs. This non-observance of a holiday, so critical to today's economy, did not originate in Galesburg, but was transported with Gale and his associates from their New England roots. It was their way.
However, progress will not be denied. Galesburg became interested in economic growth and that meant it needed railroads. Railroads were necessary to ship goods and produce to market and to re-supply Galesburg's growing downtown stores. However, Galesburg' railroads also became a conduit for new people and their cultures and beliefs. These New Englanders who barely tolerated the southern "Hoosiers" were being confronted with other groups some spoke little or no English and brought their own ideas.
The problem was confounded by the establishment and subsequent collapse of Bishop Hill. This Swedish experimental religious colony was founded in 1846 in Henry County. Although the colony was dissolved in 1860 and the land distributed to the remaining members, it did not disappear into history. A legacy of Bishop Hill was to provide a rich and strong Swedish cultural influence in central Illinois.
Swedes came to Illinois in the mid-1800s not only to go to Bishop Hill, but also to come to the land of milk and honey. Letters from transplanted Swedes to families and friends in Sweden spoke of the classless society, the cheap, fertile soil, the nearly limitless availability of land. To Swedish farmers who toiled small, rocky patches of land and that had no opportunity for economic advancement, this was the sound of utopia. The ocean crossing and the unknown America posed risks and dangers, but their Swedish farming lives provided a certainty of toil without reward.
The Swedes came. In 1847, there were only six Swedes in Galesburg, but more were soon to come. By 1860, the number had grown to between two and three thousand. Many left from the port of Gavle, on the east central coast of Sweden. They shared their limited sailing craft space with manufactured goods, also bound for America. Most landed in New York harbor, before Ellis Island. They found various routes to Bishop Hill, Galva, Wataga, Galesburg, Knoxville, and other towns. Many became farmers. Some worked on the railroad. Some went into banking, became merchants, or in other ways became successful and influential.
The Swedes learned English, as this was the language that led to success, but they also clung to much of their homeland cultural ways. Galesburg was to support a Swedish language newspaper. Swedish Lutheran churches were established. Religious observances were maintained.
Perhaps like Knox College's President Blanchard's unsuccessful attempt to stop trains from running through Galesburg on Sundays, Christmas would not be denied. Classes at Knox College could not be held on December 25 indefinitely.
The public demonstration of Christmas in Galesburg began in 1871 when the youth of the Old First Church proclaimed that they were going to have a Christmas tree for the Sunday school. The cat was out of the bag. Even before this date, however, Earnest Elmo Calkins (They Broke the Prairie) reports that a modest Christmas was being celebrated in a number of homes in the city. I doubt that history records who celebrated the first Christmas in Galesburg. It doesn't really matter. It only matters that it was and the practice spread.
The source of this bloodless revolution appears to lie at the feet of the Swedes and perhaps the Germans who brought their religious traditions to Galesburg. Both groups had a history of Christmas, and as their ranks swelled in Galesburg, so did the observance. Christmas became firmly established in Galesburg. Santa saw a new city appear on his annual itinerary. It was small but growing. It had aspirations, some to be fulfilled, some not. But Galesburg became a better place to live.
If the mood hits you and you have the Christmas spirit, kiss a Swede or a German. If you are a Scrooge, at least you can be proud of having ancestors, spiritual or otherwise, among Galesburg's founding fathers.