Beginning in 1856, George Peabody’s birthday, Feb. 18, was marked annually with the “Peabody Festival” to promote kind feelings and good fellowship. Held at Simonds hotel, it was attended only by men.
At the gathering in 1860, the occasion of his 66th birthday, the toast was “George Peabody - An American citizen, whose patriotism and principles are as broad as his whole country, without secession or revolution. He knows no flag but the star spangled banner; he sustains the credit and character of his country abroad, and manifests his love of all positions of it, by the establishment of two noble institutions - one at the north, in his native town; and one at the South (Baltimore), in his adopted city - from both of which party politics are forbidden to enter.”
Two years later, during the Civil War, the “occasion was pleasant and social and elicited more patriotic feeling. It closed with a sentiment in honor of our soldiers at the seat of war, and by the singing of Auld Lang Syne.”
After the war at the 10th annual Festival in 1866, Peabody Institute Trustee Alfred Abbott referred to the recent news of the new gift of Mr. Peabody to London, amounting to a half a million dollars. He said, he had “the fullest confidence, that by such large bestowments abroad, Mr. Peabody had lost none of his interest in his native town. These gifts only showed the expansiveness of his charity. His gifts to us have been so great, that if he never gave more he would be still entitled to our warmest gratitude.”
The highlight of this annual event happened in 1867 when 72-year-old George Peabody attended the Festival at Simond’s Hotel. About 40 gentlemen joined in he festivities of the occasion.
Coming from New York, Peabody arrived at the party at 10 p.m. “Mr. Peabody was presented to the company in the parlor of the hotel, and, after a brief interview, proceeded to the supper room. After the guests entered the hall, Mr. B. C. Perkins said: “Gentlemen, - Before being seated let us congratulate ourselves upon this most agreeable surprise - the appearance of our distinguished and beloved guest, Mr. Peabody. And, sir, (addressing Mr. Peabody,) we assure you that we, each one and all of us, without formality, welcome you in the very fullness of our hearts to this festive board in honor of your seventy-second birthday.”
Peabody gave his sincerest thanks for the manner in which he had been received. He had, he said, “often heard of these festive occasions in honor of his birthday, and had often wished he might be present."
He then told the group that he almost missed the Festival because the invitation was likely forwarded to him with a large pile of correspondence sent from Washington, D.C. Had he not met John Proctor at Framingham, “who kindly urged him to meet his fellow townsmen on this occasion."
He expressed his warm affection for his native town and the associations of his youth, and said that though he might differ with some of his townsmen on political subjects, he could respect them quite as much. He respected the man, whatever his opinions, provided they are honestly entertained. Such, he said, was his rule in his intercourse with all classes of people.
Mr. Perkins introduced the intellectual repast of the evening, as follows: “Gentlemen, - Fifteen years ago, I think it was, we were congratulating ourselves that we lived in a town which gave birth to George Peabody, and very properly did we do so; but since that time, thanks to that generosity that has regarded no locality - not even continents nor nationalities - we have seen that liberal hand bestowing upon the cause of morality and education everywhere, the accumulations of a life of industry - so that, however proper it may be for us to congratulate ourselves that we live in this favored town, how much more fitting, how much more significant that the world should congratulate itself that, seventy-two years ago today, there was born such a man as George Peabody?
"And gentlemen, how gratifying it must be to him, that his munificence has everywhere been received in the spirit of the giver, for, among the rich and the poor, among the educated and the ignorant, the name of Mr. Peabody finds a warmer welcome than the name of any other man, however much laden political or military honors. And is not this the lesson of his great work - that deeds of charity and unselfish munificence stand higher today upon the scroll of fame than the highest political honors or military prowess - and now, gentlemen, let me offer to our distinguished guest the sentiment of our hearts, in which you all will join. May his life long be spared to enjoy the love of those hearts which he has gladdened by his munificent generosity.”
The Festival closed after midnight with the traditional singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, George Peabody went to a second party: the first annual reunion of Peabody High School. It was held in the Town Hall, which also served as the High School.
Parsons & Upton's Quadrille Band provided the music for dancing and the supper was furnished by the caterer Cassell, of Salem. “At about half past eleven it was announced that George Peabody, Esq. would visit the hall and all returned from the dance hall to the school room above, where he was received with unbounded enthusiasm. After an eloquent introduction from the President, Mr. Peabody arose and addressed the audience as follows:
'My young friends, it gives me great pleasure to meet you again. I cannot easily find words to express my thanks for the compliment paid me by this friendly observance of my birthday. Both here, and in the assembly from which I have just come, my fellow-townsmen seem delighted to do me too much honor for the little I have been able to do for them. Your president informs me that it is eighteen years since the first class entered the school, and now in judging by those before me, it has accomplished a good work, which I trust will continue through many generations.
'If I have been instrumental in this work, I find my reward in your happiness and thanks. My great fatigue must be my apology for the brevity of these remarks. I shall be pleased to take you one and all by the hand, perhaps for the last time upon this visit, though I trust I shall be spared to meet you again in two or three years. Let me again in closing, thank you for your kind remembrance.'
After personally greeting nearly every person in the room, Mr. Peabody returned to the hall below where dancing had been resumed. Here he remained for awhile and seemed to enter into the spirit of the occasion as much as anyone present. Shortly after Mr. Peabody's withdrawal, the company dispersed to their homes.”