Monday, November 30, 2020

The Berwick Boulevard Christmas Display

The Berwick Christmas Boulevard Arches, 1978

In the mid 1940s, sports reporter Arthur Wark drove through Bethlehem Pa on his way to cover a football game.  Inspired by the towns Christmas display, he returned to Berwick and met with the newly formed Jaycees Club to plan a Christmas display there.  Maynard Johnson sketched out the first designs on graph paper, listing materials needed, and colors to be used, along with sizes.  The plans were then distributed to local community groups who brought the displays to life, placing them along the grassy plots that line Market Street.

More than 70 years later, this tradition continues.

On December 5th 1947, a parade through Berwick stopped at the Presbyterian Church, where after a short ceremony was held, the lights were thrown on to illuminate the first ever Christmas Boulevard.

Today, sixteen blocks continued to be decorated and illuminated by volunteers each year.  On week-ends from Thanksgiving to New Years, traffic will line bumper to bumper to drive through the display.  (Remember to turn off your headlights)

The display is located along Market Street, and is a mile long.  Each year the displays center around a theme, with many displays being recycled from years past, as well as new ones added.  The display is typically lighted from 6-10 pm during the week, and through 11pm on the week-ends.  

The boulevard is free to visit, and Santa Claus hands out a bag of Wise chips to each car that passes through.  For many years, he also handed out spools or ribbon from the Offray ribbon company.

A letterbox is available for children to drop their letters to Santa, and a donation box accepts monetary donations, which help to support the Boulevard tradition.

Many of the plots will have (very) short stories written on boards that children can read as the cars slowly make their way through the display. 

As the Daily Item said in 1965, "Berwick seemingly is a perfect illustration of local initiative and local know-how outshining the paid professionals who handle the normal big city displays."

Historical Notes About The Christmas Boulevard:

Arthur Wark, a former sports reporter for the Sunday Independent Newspaper, was traveling through Bethlehem Pennsylvania on his way to cover a football game, when he noticed how that city was decorated for Christmas.

Berwick already had a tradition of decorating the plots in front of the YMCA and Presbyterian Church on Second and Market Street, but Wark proposed a much larger display. He spoke with the Junior Chamber of Commerce organizer Maynard Johnson, and the two began to plan.

In 1946, staggered trees and lamps made up the first display. The Avenue of Light began by an old set of railroad tracks in neighboring Nescopeck.  The following year, the display moved to Market Street in Berwick, making use of the grass plots already located there.
Dec 3 1947

In 1947, the plans included decorating the "plots" of grass in the median along the 16 block thoroughfare from the Susquehanna River to North Berwick.

Each of plots along the 14 blocks was assigned to various veterans groups, churches, clubs, and local industries, to decorate in a  "religious or fairy tale themes".  The boulevard was the initiative of the newly formed Jaycee club. (Many of the Jaycees members were men who had recently returned from World War II, which may be where the, mistaken,  idea came from that this display was originally to welcome home soldiers from the war.  The war had ended two years before the first boulevard display.)

Maynard Johnson would sketch out most of the plots himself, on graph paper. Basic ideas came from Christmas cards, or photos in magazines. Measurements and material lists and colors were then given to various committees assigned to each of the plots.

The displays were build with wood, heavy sheeting plastic, wire netting, and fabric. The Daily Item reported in 1965, "the Jaycees build displays that are truly professional in appearance. The young men have become artists and craftsmen over the years!"

The first displays were build in "borrowed" garages and buildings, but in 1955 the Jaycees "became carpenters and brick layers and build a large structure to be used as Boulevard Headquarters", where the displays were constructed.

Many of the displays are so large that they were built in section, and then assembled on the plots.
There as a 40 foot long rocket, and a 19 foot long open street car, in the 1960s.

On December 5th 1947, the Jaycees sponsored a huge Christmas parade to open the Christmas season. The parade stopped at the First Presbyterian church, where "appropriate ceremonies" were held, including the "throwing on of electricity", officially lighting up Christmas Boulevard in Berwick for the very first time.

Gene Harvey began suiting up as Father Christmas for the town of Berwick in 1936, and in 1947 he was on hand to help open the Christmas Boulevard.  He continued to play Santa at the Boulevard for it's first 36 years.

In 1984, the Boulevard was dedicated to him and a permanent memorial was made in his honor.

"Animated television and cartoon characters, religious scenes and hundreds of trees decorated with lights are combined to illustrate this year's theme, "Christmas Treasures.""

In 1949, Governor James H. Duff came to Berwick to tour the Boulevard.  He was the week-end guest of Mr & Mrs Harry Magee, a Bloomsburg Industrialist.
The display that year included 18 decorated plots.

In 1962 thousands of cards visited the display, along with chartered busses. 

In 1964, "The borough recently removed plots in front of the Methodist Church and the Hotel Berwick, necessitating a change in plans for the display".

That year the display did not open until Dec 16th, much later than usual.

In 1965 the cost for the display was $3,000. No tax monies are used in the Boulevard, and no advertising is permitted. "Small, inconspicuous signs, on which the name of the firm, club or church is listed is the only recognition for those who help foot the bill."

In 1966 the display used 1,500 lineal feet of lumber, 300 Christmas trees, 200 strings of lights, 4,000 bulbs and 300 spot lights.

The highlight of the display that year was the "church plot", sponsored by the protestant churches of the community. In that display were four panes of stained glass, an organ, and 12 carolers.


In 1984, the Times Tribune reported that the cost of the annual display was $25,000, contributed by the industries of Berwick and personal donations.

By 2004, the Jaycees were soliciting sponsorships for plots, $400 for a full plot, $200 for half a plot.That year, the boulevard consisted of 13 plots ranging from 60 feet to 360 feet long.

In 2018, the Boulevard was dedicated to hometown Olympian Jayson Terdiman.
Terdiman competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia, finishing 11th in the doubles Luge competition with Christnan Niccum.

An Index Of Christmas Activities & History


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