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Through the Decades, Christmas Traditions Have Brought Holiday Happiness to Boys Town Youth

December 14th, 2015     By Tom Lynch, Director of Community Programs and Boys Town Hall of History

Boys Town History, Father Flanagan

“No season of the entire year brings with it such warmth of feeling and such a sense of peace as Christmas time.” Servant of God Edward Flanagan

Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys had been open only eight days when the boys in Servant of God Edward Flanagan’s care celebrated their first Christmas in 1917. Their Christmas meal that day consisted of a barrel of sauerkraut donated by a local merchant.

Years later, Servant of God Flanagan reflected on that momentous holiday: “…I recollect going around a few days before Christmas time, asking for a few dollars from friends so that those boys in our Home would have something to eat and decent clothes to wear on Christmas Day, and just a few little toys with which to play….”

In those early days of the Home, many of the boys had never celebrated Christmas and had no families or friends to remember them on the holidays. That’s why Servant of God Flanagan insisted that all the boys have a happy Christmas, telling his staff, “In some cases, you know it is their first real Christmas. We can’t let any of the boys down….”

It was the start of a Boys Town tradition to make the holidays special for the children that lives on today.

After the Home moved to its present-day site of the Village of Boys Town in 1921, Servant of God Flanagan would visit every dormitory on Christmas morning and personally wish each of the more than 200 boys a Merry Christmas. He would then watch them open their gifts, and oftentimes sat on the floor with the youngsters as they played with their new toys.

Christmas Day celebrations for the boys in the 1930s and 1940s revolved around attending church services, opening their gifts with Servant of God Flanagan, and having a special breakfast. In the evening, the boys enjoyed a special Christmas dinner and then watched a movie together.
When Monsignor Nicholas Wegner became the Executive Director of Boys Town after Servant of God Flanagan’s death in 1948, he introduced the Twelfth Night celebrations.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the boys participated in twelve nights of events from December 26 to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Each night had a special theme, from costume parties to a visit from a movie star. One of the favorite nights for the boys was when the teachers and staff would put on a comedy play (one year it was Cleopatra). Also during the Twelfth Night celebrations, one boy would be crowned King Stephen and get to rule over the all of the other boys for one day. At the end of that day, all of the boys (as many as 900 at Boys Town’s peak population) would playfully “stone” King Stephen with snowballs. On January 6, all of the Christmas trees in the Village would be burned in a huge bonfire to close out the Christmas season.

When Boys Town adopted its family-style residential program (the Family Home Program) in the 1970s, Christmas celebrations became more individualized in each of the Family Homes on campus. However, many of the traditions started by Servant of God Flanagan and his successors continued and are still followed each holiday season.

For example, the boys and girls put on an annual performance of the play, Gift of the Magi, and afterwards, they excitedly welcome the arrival of Santa Claus in the Village.

Unfortunately, every year, a number of the boys and girls are unable to return to their homes to spend the Christmas season with their own families. Boys Town makes sure these youth get to celebrate a form of Twelfth Night events. From Christmas to New Year’s Day, the kids have pizza parties, go bowling, and enjoy many other fun activities. On New Year’s Eve, they get together for a big party with refreshments and games.

Christmas has been and will always be one of the most special holidays for Boys Town and the children in our care. From our family to yours, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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