Those of a certain age wistfully remember Fort Wayne Christmases steeped in anticipation, wonder, family and faith – and largely free of the crass commercialization that compels stores to shift their decor from orange and black to red and green immediately after Halloween.
Alex Bojrab is the last living member of a group that viewed things differently even then, and began a tradition that, after 61 years is also believed to be the last of its kind in the United States: a community festival proclaiming that Christmas is about something infinitely more important than bargains, children's smiles and, yes, even Santa Claus and his reindeer.
“I just thought there wasn't enough being said about Jesus. God wants recognition of his son, and with all the turmoil, the world needs it. We should have festivals like this all over the world,” said Bojrab, who helped create the Christ Child Festival in a meeting at the South Side Market on Warsaw Street in 1951 and will still be involved when the festival returns Dec. 14-16 to Memorial Coliseum.
Believed to be the last event of its kind in the United States, the 88-year old retired International Harvester worker said he is saddened that the festival is not as popular as it once was. This year's crowd will be just a fraction of the 50,000 visitors predicted a News-Sentinel headline in 1964.
But a kind of resurrection may be taking place, volunteer Judi Hapke said.
Thanks in part to a change of strategy – committee members are now contacting churches, exhibitors and other potential participants directly, the number of booths this year may reach 60 or more and is already nearing capacity. Even more have said they would like to participate next year.
“We have found that there's a lot of nostalgia out there, with so many new things out there. We want to bring some of that back. People say, 'I'd like to be able to bring my kids,' ” Hapke said.
In addition to more Nativity displays than you can probably count, the festival will feature live animals, booths operated by various churches and organizations, hands-on activities and music.
Extra effort was made this year to reach out to various cultures, Hapke said, which has resulted in participation by Burmese, Liberians, Congolese and other groups. A “soldier's tree” will allow visitors to “adopt” a service member for Christmas by sending a card or gift. Visitors are also asked to bring a can of food to help feed the hungry.
And as he has every year, Bojrab will help line up the free snacks.
After moving to the then-new coliseum in 1952, Bojrab remembered, the event was so popular that he ran out of cookies. When the owners of Ellison Bakery found out, they donated enough cookies for everybody. Such generosity has kept festival-goers fed to this day.
Despite its undeniable good intentions – keeping the good news of Christ's birth central in the Christmas story – it's important not to overestimate its importance.
The festival is no substitute for the church created by Christ himself. And, ironically, some congregations' increasingly elaborate Christmas pageants have helped undermine the popularity and uniqueness of the Christ Child Festival. But Hapke is exactly right when she says that an event that unites Christians of many denominations for the sake of “putting the emphasis on Christ and the joy he brings” is something the community should cherish and sustain.
“I'm hoping it goes on forever,” Bojrab said. “We need to remember what God did for us.”
Yes, we do. For all the wonderful memories created by seeing the animated windows at Wolf & Dessauer and sitting on Santa's lap there, the experience was indeed primarily driven by commercialism – even if I didn't realize it at the time. Today, when many stores refuse even to say “Christmas” despite decorations that seek to capitalize on its universal themes, the cynical exploitation of Christ's birth is perhaps even more obvious, if far less honest and respectful.
It's simply rude to attend a birthday party if you're not even willing to say the guest of honor's name or even acknowledge his existence.
No, the Christ Child Festival is not a church and should not be mistaken for one. But it is a worthwhile civic reminder that without Christ there truly can be no Christmas. It also gives comfort to those who fear there can be no Christmas without a pile of stuff under the tree.
After all, admission to the festival – and to the true Christmas -- is free. Even if it will cost you $4 to park.