A Very Regal Christmas
Oak Lawn ladies celebrate the holidays with grace and elegance.
All eyes were transfixed on the grand ballroom of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago as a procession of young women, clothed in white gowns and gloves presented themselves to onlookers. Each was escorted by a tuxedo-clad suitor, who led their companion up to the stage amid the beaming smiles of family and friends. As the frigid December night wore on, thousands of dollars were raised for an Oak Lawn institution: Christ Community Hospital.
The annual Christmas Cotillion, held every December 26th, would not only introduce ladies to Oak Lawn society, but also collected charitable donations for a burgeoning medical center in the heart of Chicago's Southland.
The cotillion tradition dates back to 18th century France, where royal courts hosted social galas for only the most respected members of high society. These gatherings were dubbed "cotillions," after the French word for tailcoat, which referenced the movement of jacket tails as couples danced. Considered the pinnacle of etiquette and class, cotillions were an important milestone that formally introduced young women to their peers.
By the late 1950's, Oak Lawn's Christ Community Hospital was struggling to accommodate a recent population explosion in the area. To help relieve these economic woes, the hospital's Women's Auxiliary Force, composed of prominent citizens, met and organized a very special fundraiser. Held the day after Christmas, 12 young ladies were presented to village officials at the 1959 event. The first cotillion was so successful in raising money for Christ Community that a second event was planned for the following year.
Described as a "social event of dignity and prestige" by Auxiliary members, the rules for inductees were very specific. High school seniors, upon turning 18, would be eligible only if they were a daughter or granddaughter of a current member. By limiting who could join, it had the added benefit of keeping the event small and exclusive. The nominated girls would attend a spring tea, where the cotillion guidelines would be discussed and practice would begin for the upcoming social event.
These inductees, now called "debutantes," had to adhere to strict guidelines during their preparations and dress rehearsals. Ladies were required to be escorted to the event by a gentlemen, preferably her father. In keeping with the regal atmosphere of the Christmas cotillion, debutants were specifically required to wear white gowns and elbow-length white gloves. Jewelry was restricted to white pearls. Those men attending the event donned evening ware in the form of tuxedos and satin gloves.
As the night proceeded, suitors requested to dance with debutantes by signing a dance card held by the young lady. By the end of the ceremony, the women were welcomed as the newest members of the Auxiliary Force. A generous donation was made in the name of each inductee by local businesses, from the Oak Lawn News Agency, to the Damen Savings and Loan Association.
The 1969 cotillion booklet described the character of the inducted debutantes, noting how her traits formed the foundation of the cotillion tradition. "She is a delightful human being. She is the magic of 18, and is finding the world a most fascinating place to live in. She makes our Christmas possible in such a wonderful and charming way.
By the early 1970s, the combined Christmas donations had exceeded $400,000. This charity helped build an Intensive Care Unit, Geriatrics Department, and furnished every waiting room in the hospital.
Sadly, the cotillion tradition in Oak Lawn became more and more obsolete as Christ Community received funding from both the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago. As the hospital transformed into a sprawling medical complex, independent businesses and local citizens that made donations saw no need for the elaborate and expensive ceremony.
Although the last Christmas cotillion in Oak Lawn was held in 1993, the charity and generosity of its participants have never been forgotten. In those early days, as Christ Community struggled to make ends meet, people supported the hospital and dug deep into their pockets, and reacted as Oak Lawn residents always have, with opens arms and compassion.
For more information on the Christmas cotillions and the history of Oak Lawn, visit the Local History Room of the Oak Lawn Public Library.