The First (Town-wide) Noël
It would have been very distressing to Stratford’s Puritan founders witnessing the events on Christmas Eve at Academy Hill in 1917. For Puritans who foreswore the celebration of Papist-Hedonistic Christmas, and for whom celebrating Christmas could land a celebrant in the stocks for three days, Billie Howell and her Useful Club would have been an obvious target. Advance the calendar 278 years and we find a young woman fortuitously, but quite coincidentally, leading the first ever town-wide Christmas Celebration in Stratford.
Richard Howell, owner/editor of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, bought a home at Hard’s Corner in August 1911. Three years passed by, and the forty-seven year old Mr. Howell attended a Vaudeville performance in Bridgeport featuring one Catherine (Billy) Blair Eggleston, whose stage name was Billie Cree. He must have been smitten with the 22 year old Miss “Cree”, as they were married a few months later in July of 1915.
Dick and Billie bought a mansion on the southwest corner of South Avenue and Elm Street, where Billie began to let loose her “unpuritanical”, vaudevillian ways upon the town. Much of Billie’s time on the Vaudeville stage was focused on improving the plight of the dairy farmers in her childhood home in South Carolina. Her philanthropic ways were refocused and re-channeled in her new Stratford home, where she began feeding the poor, offering aid to impoverished children, leading the Sedgewick School PTA, hosting a myriad of Vaudeville actors seeking respite from the stage, and assisting the local Suffragettes in their long-suffering fight for equality.
Billie formed the Boys and Girls Useful Club in 1917 which, among other things, taught hungry children in town how to garden to help feed their families. The capstone project for the Useful Club was to organize and host Stratford’s first ever town-wide Christmas party, on Academy Hill.
The Bridgeport Herald, December 23, 1917
STRATFORD PEOPLE WILL GATHER ‘ROUND COMMUNITY CHRISTMAS TREE MONDAY: The old town of Stratford is ready to celebrate her first community Christmas tree. The big event in which everyone in Stratford, both young and old, is interested, will be held Christmas Eve, beginning 6:30 o’clock. The tree has been erected on Academy Hill and will be lighted by colored electric lights and all sorts of Christmas tinsel.
If ever that Biblical saying, “And a little child shall lead them,” proved itself, it has in this case of the community Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is made possible by the Boys and Girls’ Useful Club of Stratford, club organized by Mrs. Richard Howell, the purpose of which is to use the energy of the little folks to some good purpose and get them interested in the real things in life which make them and other people happy.
The little folks suggested some months ago that they have a Christmas tree that the whole town could enjoy. Two or three times before efforts had been made to have a Christmas tree in Stratford, but for some reason the plan failed. This year, however, the club members suggested a community Christmas tree that will equal if not surpass anything of the sort in the state.
The Useful Club’s tree lighting tradition continues in Stratford to this day with our special thanks to Billie Howell. To read the full story go to: