Family Fun
December 2, 2012 • 08:33:56 p.m.

Step into Christmas past at historical society museum


Dave Harms turns on an old-style television that he will use in his 1950s Christmas living room display at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum in Union on Wednesday, November 21, 2012. Harms' display will officially open on December 1 and visitors will be able to pose with their families in the living room to take an old-fashioned Christmas photo. (Monica Maschak -

Dave Harms pulled out an old Gene Autry Christmas video as he sorted through his collection at the McHenry County Historical Society.

“Isn’t this a scream?” he asked with a laugh.

It was the type of program that played in the 1950s during his family’s Christmas celebrations, he said.

Harms moved from memory to memory as he showed off all that he’s gathered since 1980, when he first began trying to re-create the Christmas of his childhood.

An antique Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer record player. A working Lionel train set. Even the beaten up wooden ladder his father used to climb to hang Christmas lights.

He glanced it over and remembered with a laugh when his father would shout down, “Hold the ladder!”

The collection, complete with the ladder propped on the outside of a window, will transform a stage at the historical society’s museum into a 1950s Christmas living room. An antique wooden, black-and-white television has been gutted and reconfigured to play television specials and programs from that era.

For many, the display will represent a piece of nostalgia brought to life.

And it will remain open for visitors throughout December, as well as by appointment in January, at the museum, 6422 Main St., Union.

Those who stop by will have the chance to take their family’s picture seated or standing around a vintage sofa with the 1950s living room as a backdrop.

“It harkens back to a time when people remember what Christmas was like. ... I think people kind of took more time to appreciate the little things back then because they didn’t have as much,” Museum Director Kurt Begalka said.

For Harms, the collection brings him back to family gatherings, along with the anticipation and excitement Christmas brought him as a child.

It’s complete with the table his family used to eat holiday meals around in Morton Grove.

“If that table could talk,” he said.

He re-created the living room for the first time at the museum five years ago and has done other displays since, including last year’s display of more than 40 aluminum Christmas trees of all shapes, sizes and colors. Other displays have featured a 1950s department store and hardware store scenes.

The display, Harms hopes, will strike a chord with others who might enjoy reminiscing about past Christmases.

“Christmas was a spectacular time for me as a kid,” he said. “It’s a nostalgic family time in my life, and hopefully it will bring back fond memories for other people.”

Harms keeps much of his collection stored away throughout the year at nearby D. Hill Nursey in Union, the business he and his family now own.

A member of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a worldwide club for collectors of antique Christmas items, for the past 32 years, he visits flea markets and antique shops to hunt down his finds. He also researches online.

He’s been a Rudolph fan since childhood and has numerous Rudolph antiques, such as radios, books, music, a sled, furniture and toys, including a small coin-operated Rudolph ride.

The display also will include a fireplace with artificial crackling logs, a working “snow” machine, holly-patterned china, vintage greeting cards and wrapping paper and extended-play 45 Christmas records.

It all began with an extensive search for a lighted tree stand like the one his grandparents used when he was a child. They never lit it.

“It drove me nuts because my grandpa didn’t have the light bulb to illuminate it,” Harms said. “It really left an impression on me.”

Once he found a similar tree stand from that era, he didn’t stop.

He also owns collector stamps featuring the first Christmas stamp released in 1962. This being the 50th anniversary of that release, he plans to feature the stamps as well as press photos from that time in a display near the living room.

Some watch the same holiday movie every year, sing the same songs, attend the same church service. Most have traditions to mark the holiday. For Harms, it’s all about nostalgia.

He puts it all together as part of a volunteer effort, stopping by the museum on nights and weekends, in between his full-time job. Why does he do it?

“It reminds me of when I was little,” he said.

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