A Christmas Tradition

Photo courtesy of John Gunselman
John Gunselman of Jasper, now 63, is pictured sitting with Santa Claus at the American Legion Christmas Party about 60 years ago at Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium in Jasper.

Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller

Anna, 5, and Jett, 3, Sermersheim of Jasper ran off the gym bleachers to hug Santa as he made his way around the gym for his grand entrance into the American Legion Christmas Party Sunday at Jasper Middle School.

Meanwhile, the Jasper Middle School band played Christmas songs, and people dressed in dog, tiger, snowman and bear mascot suits walked around the gym waving at the kids and hyping up the crowd.

It’s a tradition 80 years old and still going strong.

Hosted by Jasper’s American Legion Post 147, the party began in 1922 with Santa sitting on the Jasper Square handing out fruit and penny candy to children on Christmas Eve. In the 1930s, the American Legion and its auxiliary decided to expand the program, so George Kreilein of Jasper took the lead and moved the event to the Memorial Park on Main Street (where the Jasper Public Library now sits).

The party has been held annually since 1937 and has grown so large that it’s had to move locations a few times. After Memorial Park, the party moved to Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium. When the event outgrew Cabby O’Neill, it moved to its current location, the Black Gym at Jasper Middle School where the Legion held Sunday’s event.

Under Kreilein’s leadership, what began as a treat for the children of servicemen grew to a community event spreading the Christmas spirit to thousands of local children. At the party’s height, 3,500 kids attended. This year, 375 children and their families gathered in the gym — the party’s fourth location — Sunday afternoon for what has become a Jasper Christmas staple marked by the brown paper lunch bag stuffed with an apple, an orange and a handful of cookies and candies Santa gives to each child. It’s the same gift the kids received 80 years ago — Joan Jarboe, 92, still remembers getting the bag as a child in the 1930s.

“In those days, (children) were thrilled to get stuff like that,” Jarboe said.

Jett Sermersheim of Jasper, 3, center, and his sister, Anna, 5, greeted Santa Claus with a hug during the party at Jasper Middle School. The party used to be held at Memorial Park, where the library is now, and then Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium before moving to Jasper Middle School.

If the grins on the children’s faces Sunday afternoon were any indication, they’re still thrilled to get the bag of treats. Of course, kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from the Legion’s Christmas party. Santa also visits all the Jasper nursing homes, going room to room and offering each resident a treat bag.

In the party’s early days, it was the premier Christmas event in town. Unlike today when families can visit Santa in his cottage outside the Dubois County Courthouse throughout December, the Legion Christmas party was one of only a few chances families had to see Santa. And in the early years, the country was suffering the Great Depression and World War II. Then,  treat bag served as a bright spot in dark times, and for some children, the bag was the only present they were likely to get.

When Kreilein took over the party in the 30s, the party cost $400 (organizers wouldn’t divulge how much it costs today). He raised funds through a letter campaign with local businesses, and factory workers tossed loose change in buckets Kreilein collected each week. The auxiliary also threw Christmas card-making parties that, according to a 2012 Herald article, yielded about $50 each.

Skylar Atwood of Jasper, 3, played with her raffle ticket while she listened to see if her number got called.

As the years passed, those fundraisers became a thing of the past, replaced with Wednesday night weekly Bingo as the main source of funding for the party, filling a need that has grown considerably. George Kreilein, too, became a part of the party’s history, but his family remained active in planning and hosting the event. Three of Kreilein’s nieces — sisters Anna Messier, 79, Louise Schitter, 88, and Sally Rees, 92 — became active in the Legion Auxiliary and took their turn running the Christmas party.

On Sunday, the three were honored for their service. Rees ran the party for about 50 years. Rees was a member of the auxiliary while her husband, Robert “Cotton” Gunselman, an Army man, was a member of the American Legion. For a time, the two led their respective organizations as well, Rees as president of the auxiliary, and Gunselman as commander of the Legion. Gunselman died in 1970.

For Rees’s sons, Jeff and John Gunselman, having two parents so heavily involved with the Legion meant attending the Christmas party every year. John, 62, has a photo of himself on Santa’s lap as a toddler — he estimates he’s 2 or 3 in the photo — and he was in the bleachers on Sunday with Rees sitting in her wheelchair next to him.

“It was everything that represents Christmas as a child,” John said. “It was so exciting to get that plain brown bag, knowing all that was inside.”

Branon Buechlein of Jasper, left, danced with his daughter, Brynn, 3, alongside his wife, Autumn; daughter, Nalanie, 5; and son, Urban, 2, as the Jasper Middle School band played classic Christmas songs. Both Branon and Autumn came to the American Legion Christmas Party as kids and have continued the tradition with their children.

Like her sister, Messier also took a turn leading the Christmas party. She remembers when legion members drove from town to town buying stores out of the fruits and sweets needed to fill the treat bags. At the time, people couldn’t bulk order off the internet like they can now, Messier said, and it took a lot to fill 2,000 treat bags.

For Messier, giving to the kids, especially the ones who weren’t likely to receive many other gifts, was the best part of leading the Christmas party.

Her most memorable story, however, comes from a trip to one of the nursing homes. Messier remembers coming to a room to find it filled with a family. The resident, it turned out, was dying. She’d been unresponsive for days, and the family was saying goodbye. The Legion group asked if the family would like Santa to come in, and the family said yes. Then came a small Christmas miracle.

“Santa went in there, and she smiled,” Messier recalled. “They couldn’t believe it.”

Messier admits there aren’t too many stories like that in the Christmas party’s history, but that’s OK. The party isn’t about miracles; it’s about spreading joy and the spirit of Christmas. That’s the focus that has carried the party for 80 years, and the Legion is confident that focus will carry the party through to its centennial.

“It’s one of the only things where you get lots of people together, giving,” John Gunselman said. “Christmas is about giving.”

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