The Spirit of Christmas


     Odds are, if you’re older than 40 and grew up in Oakland, you spent years of your life practicing how to move and think like a peppermint.
     From 1919 to 1987, Oakland held an annual Christmas pageant performed by schoolchildren. An extraordinary woman who left a New York dance career to return to Oakland, Louise Jorgensen choreographed and organized the event each year. As a staff member of the city’s recreation department, she’d visit 50 schools a week to conduct a half-hour rehearsal in the last few months of the year. The Kaiser Convention Center hosted the pageant’s overflow crowds
(8,000 proud parents, says one source).
     Jorgensen taught the children how to act as fairies, elves, reindeer, holly berries, polar bears and toys: sort of like the Nutcracker’s Land of Sweets writ large.
     Wrote Austin Lewis in a 1923’s San Francisco News Letter, “Another quite beautiful spectacle
was that of some hundreds of little girls of three to five or six years of age who represented snow girls and, dressed in white, running in large masses,
gave the most striking and touching effect. There was a pathetic loveliness about this which actually brought tears.”
     For two performances in the first weekend of December, more than 1,500 performers ranging from clueless kindergartners to world-weary high school seniors created holiday magic on a huge scale. A small orchestra played at one end of the enormous auditorium, and each year in the finalé, Jorgensen herself would appear as the Spirit of Christmas. She died in 1995, eight years after the last performance.
     In 2006, nostalgic teachers organized The Winter Festival, an attempt to revive and secularize the pageant, but this may be one of those feats of the past that is impossible to replicate. Without Jorgensen’s legendary patience (well noted on several Facebook pages) and power to pull off such a deed of epic proportions, the pageant will recede into memory.

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