The Golden Lamb: A holiday tradition more than 215 years in the making
Christmas through the Ages
by John Zimkus, Historian of the Golden Lamb
‘Twas two days before Christmas — the year 1803 — when folks learned of a new place to gather and be merry.
The holiday season has long played an important role in the more than 215- year history of the Golden Lamb Inn & Restaurant in Lebanon, Ohio. In fact, Jonas Seaman, the proprietor of the first Golden Lamb, purchased his license “to keep a house of Public Entertainment” two days before Christmas on December 23, 1803. He got it at Warren County’s temporary courthouse, the original Black Horse Tavern — originally a competitor of the Golden Lamb.
Christmas Day, in those days, was not readily celebrated by all, though. Five years earlier, in 1798 — before there was a Golden Lamb or even a Lebanon, Ohio — Francis Dunlavy, the first teacher in the entire Miami Valley, ran a subscription school for young boys. On December 25 of that year, the boys of the school decided they deserved Christmas Day off and locked their teacher out. To Master Dunlavy the idea of “treating” his students did not sit well. He was determined to hold class and tried to enter the school through the window, but the students fought him off with sticks. Finally, Dunlavy climbed up on the cabin’s roof and came down its clay chimney, which one could argue was rather appropriate for Christmas. The boys, in 1798, had school on Christmas Day.
As the 19th century progressed, Christmas was more widely celebrated with folks often thinking of those less fortunate. In 1896, it was reported that some of the ladies of Lebanon visited the Warren County Orphan Asylum and Children's Home just west of town on Christmas Eve. There, they set up a Christmas tree and gave the children “a great pile of oranges and lots of toys.”
That same year, Mrs. Sarah Phares, who ran a boarding house on Mulberry Street a block north of the Golden Lamb, opened her home on Christmas Day to those students of the National Normal University who could not go home for the holiday. There the “time was whirled away in listening to delightful music or engaging in mirthful conversation.” Then the Normalites, as the NNU students were called, shared a holiday dinner “fit for a king.” The university existed in Lebanon from 1855 to 1917 and had as many as 2,000 students at one time. In 1955, a small monument to the school was placed in the park next to the Golden Lamb.
Celebrating Christmas could also get a bit rowdy and out of hand. The Western Star, Lebanon’s weekly newspaper, also reported in 1896 that there were “more drunken men with black eyes and bloody noses on the streets Christmas Day than ever seen here in one day.”
In 1914, a “municipal Christmas tree” was decorated in the exact spot where it stands today — catty-corner from the Golden Lamb across the intersection of Main and Broadway. It is in what we now appropriately call Christmas Tree Park. In 1914, however, the tree was “lighted with electrical lights” on Christmas Evening and not a month earlier on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
In the mid-20th century, J. Ray Law operated the Town Hall Theater in Lebanon’s town hall across Broadway from the Golden Lamb. For many years, Law would open the movie house for free to children under 12 on the last day of school before Christmas break, with the school district's permission, of course. The youngsters would be shown cartoons, and be provided with “candy and fruit treats.”
On Christmas Eve of 1940, a radio drama called “Christmas at the Golden Lamb” was performed in the Dickens Room of the hotel. The story concerned a man named ‘Scruggins,’ who is described as “a typical American businessman who is staying overnight in the far-famed Charles Dickens’ room in the inn.” A cast of sixteen acted out the play including Golden Lamb owner, Bob Jones. The drama was broadcast over the network of six radio stations in three states. The Golden Lamb is said to have been “specially decorated to re-create the atmosphere of old England.”
In the early 1950s, in the little park next to the Golden Lamb a very important seasonal structure was placed - Santa Claus’s headquarters! The “jolly old elf” himself would be there to greet the children of guests of the Golden Lamb and those of the Lebanon area. He was there every afternoon and evening for a week or more before Christmas. For about 20 years, Santa’s little “storybook cottage” next to the Golden Lamb was a very important part of Christmas.
Nothing sums up a Golden Lamb Christmas like the 1913 Western Star Christmas Day Menu, which includes “Kindness,” “Good Cheer,” Tender Memories,” “Long Life Stuffed with Usefulness” and “Sweet Thoughts.” For scores of families, those ingredients are still found every year at the Golden Lamb as multiple generations of guests gather together for their annual holiday traditions at “Ohio’s Most Famous Restaurant” - The Golden Lamb, in Lebanon, Ohio.