Wassailing with Lily Russell: Christmas at Baylor, 1930s-1950s

By Brian Simmons, Archival Assistant and Digital Input Specialist

Lily Russell, undated photo

Lily Russell, undated photo. (This was taken around the time when she was Dean of the Union Building at Baylor University, 1948-1954.) Lily McIlroy Russell papers.

As last week’s Christmas on Fifth Street and the Christmas tree lighting celebration fade into memory, here at The Texas Collection it has revived nostalgia for Baylor’s Christmas celebrations of yesteryear. The first communal Christmas tree at Baylor originated with Irene Marschall, then current Dean of Women, in 1926. Aided by her assistant, Lily Russell, Marschall’s idea became an event on Fifth Street with the lighting of the tree, a performance by the Glee Club and an appearance by Santa Claus. That same year, Russell wrote a Christmas program that would continue to be performed in the women’s dormitories at Baylor for over a decade.

Materials used in Christmas celebrations at Baylor, circa 1930s

Materials used in Christmas celebrations at Baylor, circa 1930s

Known as “Old Christmas,” it was inspired by Washington Irving’s work of the same title. Performers included dormitory residents, members of student organizations and volunteers. Guests were immediately immersed in the setting after being greeted by cast members in costumes and viewing the decorations that adorned the entry and banquet hall.

Guests were seated and carols were sung until the program, which incorporated a dinner within a dramatic production, began. The dinner included traditional English touches such as wassailing and the Boar’s Head feast. In 1935, Dr. A. J. Armstrong arranged for an antique wassail bowl to add to the authenticity of the event. The event was traditionally held in Burleson Hall, but as the program grew in popularity, a second night was added at Memorial Hall.

"Old Christmas" script

A revised script used in a production of “Old Christmas.” Although the core production remained identical, alterations were made through the years.

 

"The Boar's Head Carol" sheet music

An arrangement of “The Boar’s Head Carol” that Lily Russell used in the “Old Christmas” production, circa 1930s

Students participating in the decorating of the Baylor University Union Building, 1953

Students participating in the decorating of the Baylor University Union Building, 1953

Lily Russell went on to become Dean of Women in 1931, and she organized not only the “Old Christmas” program but also other Baylor Christmas festivities. Christmas entertainment for students and faculty included dramatic productions, concerts, banquets and dances.

Excerpt from a 1953 letter written by Lily Russell to Mattie Brooks, thanking her for judging the decorating contest.

Excerpt from a 1953 letter written by Lily Russell to Mattie Brooks, thanking her for judging the decorating contest.

After becoming Dean of the Union Building in 1948, Lily Russell found a way to share her passion for entertaining with student groups. She arranged for a competition in which student organizations would decorate the various rooms of the Union for the Christmas Open House event. Once completed, Russell arranged for people from the community to come in and pick their favorite rooms. After tallying the votes, the group with the winning room was presented a gold loving cup by the president of the university at the Open House.

Lily Russell was highly involved in planning a range of events at Baylor, including the centennial celebration in 1945. Visit The Texas Collection to view her collections (including BU Records: Dean of Women (Lily Russell) and BU Records: Dean of the Union Building (Lily Russell) and possibly be inspired by her style to add vintage flair to your next occasion.

A 1929 Saturday Evening Post, which Russell used for costume ideas

Lily Russell often saved clippings from newspapers and magazines for inspiration. This 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post includes handwritten notes about costuming for the “Old Christmas” program.

References:

“Burleson and Memorial Girls Plan Two Evenings of Yule Festivities.” The Daily Lariat (Waco, TX), Dec. 17, 1935. Accessed 5 December 2013.

“Burleson Formal Slated Tonight.” The Daily Lariat (Waco, TX), Dec. 21, 1939. Accessed 5 December 2013.

“Burleson, Memorial Will Give Annual Christmas Parties.” The Daily Lariat (Waco, TX), Dec. 15, 1939. Accessed 5 December 2013.

“Dean Marschall Plans Big Christmas Tree For Students.” The Daily Lariat (Waco, TX), Dec. 12, 1926. Accessed 5 December 2013.

“Open House in Union Building Held Tomorrow.” The Baylor Lariat (Waco, TX), Dec. 11, 1953. Accessed 5 December 2013.

Russell, Lily [vertical file]. The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

This entry was posted in Baylor University, Christmas, Lily McIlroy Russell, Student Union Building. Bookmark the permalink.

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