As the holiday season comes to a climax, it’s interesting to look back at the recent history of the celebration. Peoria’s Santa Claus Parade represents one of the oldest parades in the country featuring Santa, and rightly can be considered the kickoff for holiday festivities in Peoria. It dates back to 1888, when Peoria was especially prosperous.

By contrast, when the East Peoria Festival of Lights began in 1985, the local economy had been looking bleak. “Leave the lights on…we’re staying” became the byword—an antidote to the glib bumper sticker “Last one out, turn out the lights.”

Some years later, “Yule like Peoria,” the downtown Peoria walk-about, developed as a way to showcase Peoria’s downtown with music, performance, art, and treats during the evening of the Santa parade.

During the first two weekends of December, the Peoria Historical Society’s historic Flanagan House and Pettengill-Morron House welcome visitors for Christmas by candlelight.

Victorian customs typify the classic Christmas. Queen Victoria introduced the Christmas tree to England, compliments of her mother’s and her husband’s German roots. The early American colonialists with English ties, particularly in places like Virginia and the Carolinas, didn’t have Christmas trees until Victorian times. They still prefer their holly, ivy, and waxy magnolia leaves.

Poinsettias didn’t come to the United States until South Carolinian Joel Poinsett imported them in 1826. During the holiday season, the Glen Oak Conservatory showcases a beautiful display, enhanced by carolers and musicians.

Consider the way Christmas trees continue to evolve. You’ll still find folks searching for their favorite short-needle variety, while others prefer long needles. Flocked trees offer the illusion of snow. Freshness fans make the pilgrimage to cut their own. You can even order from the Internet. Others retrieve their boxed beauties from attic, basement, or closet and reassemble them into better-than-natural perfection.

In my youth I marveled at shiny aluminum trees that changed colors as a rotating color wheel reflected off them. Today, I’m fascinated by the effect of fiber optic lights that sparkle as they change colors. They’re already “last century,” however. Some of the newer designs sculpt the shape of a tree in lights—a minimalist approach.

Drive down almost any street to know that holiday lights have become the thing. Long forgotten is Jimmy Carter’s dark Christmas during the energy shortage. No lighted tree graced the White House lawn that year. Across the country, people adopted a subdued approach. Some still remembered the blackouts of World War II and did their patriotic duty. Today, a dark house suggests the occupants are either Grinches or have gone to Florida.

Villages under the tree actually hearken back to very old customs. In 18th century Naples, noble families commissioned leading artists to create a “presepio”—a realistic depiction of the nativity scene. The centerpiece was the crèche, often surrounded by the landscape of the Holy Land, but with familiar Neopolitans among the shepherds visiting the Holy Family. For nearly 40 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has displayed a classic example each holiday season. Their panorama, at the base of a stately evergreen covered with elegantly designed angels, is a holiday must-see.

Think about the Christmas decorations you’ve loved. Maybe it was something as simple as window stencils done with Glass Wax. Today’s static clings are certainly much more colorful, without the cleanup mess.

Recall the music, from the simplest carols to grand choral works, from choirs to the Peoria Area Civic Chorale. EastLight’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat celebrated its 12th season.

Holiday foods evoke wonderful smells, eye-catching displays, and mouth-watering goodness. They deserve to be called culinary arts.

Christmas cards are an art form in their own right as well. A relative, long deceased, kept a scrapbook with the most unusual Christmas card or two of the season. We marveled over the embossed ones, the ones with glitter, the first narrow vertical one. I thought of her the year 3-D optical illusions were available: just stare at all the little Santas until the big Santa pops into view. I know she would have enjoyed seeing today’s laser cuts, fancy foils, and animated musical e-cards.

History. As another year begins, we’re living it—with the art of the season all around. AA!