Today I Learned: Kansas City’s Holiday History

November 20, 2017

Lights ablaze and trees towering overhead, there’s hardly a more joyful time to visit KC than during the winter season. That said, the stories behind some of Kansas City’s most iconic traditions are just as whimsical as the festivities themselves.

Discover the history of favorite holiday celebrations in the City of Fountains. 

Plaza Lights

What was once a single strand of lights has become an annual tradition nearly 90 years old. The first set of bulbs went up in the Country Club Plaza in 1925. Five years later, the district marked its first of many lighting ceremonies—a Thanksgiving tradition and unofficial kickoff to the holiday season. 

Mayor’s Christmas Tree Ornaments

The Mayor’s Christmas Tree, a towering 100-foot fir in Crown Center Square, has been a KC staple since the 19th century, when Mayor George Shelley (1878-1879) purchased a tree and prepared meals for the poor with money from his own pocket.

The ornaments are special, too. Since 1987, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Ornament has been made using wood from the previous year’s tree, making each a unique piece of KC history. 

Northern Lights

During the bustling 1950s, Downtown KC’s decorations were the must-see spectacle of the holiday season. People flocked from all across the region for shopping, merrymaking, larger-than-life crowns and to visit places like Petticoat Lane, a photogenic strip of street known for its central role in the Kansas City fashion industry.

The custom faded as the times changed. However, the tradition has since relocated north, now the crown jewel of Zona Rosa’s seasonal spirit.

The Fairy Princess

Downtown Kansas City was also home to another beloved tradition: the Fairy Princess. First introduced in 1935 in Kline’s Department Store’s Toyland section to attract families to the retailer, children could visit the Fairy Princess for only 25 cents—a price that remained consistent for more than 30 years. The biggest draw, however, was exclusivity. Every shop had a Santa. Only Kline’s had the Fairy Princess.

The business eventually closed in 1970, which temporarily shelved the annual custom. Seventeen years passed before the Kansas City Museum restored the tradition in 1987. Now, youngsters can visit the Fairy Princess at the Historic Garment District.Museum of Kansas City.

Union Station Decorations

Known year-round for its wonderful architecture and impressive exhibits, Union Station maintains a well-deserved reputation as a hub for holiday entertainment. The Southern Holiday Express Train has been visiting since 2000 and the gigantic tree is always a welcome sight to visitors.

In its travel heyday, Union Station operated first and foremost as a train depot. Whether families were arriving to pick up daughters and sons after cross-country treks or soldiers were returning home from overseas, the festive decorations have always served as a warm greeting to those traveling from near and far.

CBE Hall of Fame Classic

This relatively new Thanksgiving week tradition is anticipated by college basketball fans all across the country. Hosted by The College Basketball Experience, the tournament was first held in Kemper Arena and Municipal Auditorium before moving to Sprint Center in 2007.

Past tourney champions range widely throughout Division I conferences, but the universities of Missouri, Kansas and Texas have all won the title twice. It remains one of the most competitive early-season tournaments in men’s college hoops.

Want to dig even deeper? The competition stems from the Big 8 Holiday Tournament, a seasonal tradition that took place between Christmas and New Year’s, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s.