|"Free Christmas Dinner for Horses" Washington, D.C., 1918|
Of the Star's Board of Contributors
One of my father's favorite stories is about the childhood Christmases of his father's family. A century ago my grandfather, his 10 brothers and two sisters would awake at dawn on Christmas to rush downstairs for the goodies that their parents had labored hours to make and hang on the tree. In less than an hour all the edible decorations were gone, the candles burned out, the few toys broken.
As a child, I was taken aback by my father's comic tale of Yuletide Darwinism. But now, a quarter of a century later, the family folktale for me has taken on a new significance. Last year my father took me through narrow back streets in a grimy, decaying neighborhood in Pittsburgh to the scene of these Christmases past. We stood before a small, dilapidated two-story frame house surrounded by high weeds, broken bottles, old tires and other debris. Seeing the old house was the catalyst necessary for my altered perception of the meaning of my father's tale.
|My great-grandparents' house at 625 Winfield Street in East Liberty, c. 1905. Both of the houses in the photo no longer exist.|
Looking at the house, I see back to time when 15 people crowded into the three upper rooms of an urban worker's house. I see the children shivering from the cold, their breath like fog in the air as they stumble down the stairs in the half-light. They squirm with anticipation as their father lights the candles on the tree. As my great-grandfather Busch stands by with buckets of sand and water, hte children gaze at this once-a-year marvel. I see them all huddled around, watching the tree aglow with many tiny flames.
A brief pause, and the children spring upon the tree and hungrily devour all its cookies, candies, and popcorn. When they get to the bare needles, the elder boys put on their Sunday suits, grab their coats, and are off into the raw, sooty morning, their boot-heels leaving shallow imprints in the frozen mud. Their father and mother repair to the warmth of the kitchen, where she tends to the goose and her small daughters, while he, over coffee, reminisces about childhood Weihnachten in the snowy spruce forests of Franconia. This is the one day in the year when they find escape from the 6-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day drudgery of the steelworker's family. It is, in short, a holiday, a day to enjoy with family and friends.
|Christmas truce between German and British troops, 1914.|
Of course, this Christmas scene is not much different from thousands of other Christmas scenes in houses, tenements and farms across America at that time and for half a century afterward. It is no wonder that Christmas held such importance for these people in our recent past. They drew upon European civilization for the symbols of the season--trees, candles, St. Nicholas. But for its substance they turned to the story in Luke. It is a story of poor people: people pushed around by an oppressive imperial regime, people compelled to travel "so all the world might be taxed," people forced to take shelter in a stable. Yet, despite the suffering, they experienced the wonder and joy of a birth. In the middle of the night, in cold and darkness, it came upon them. They heard the angels. They saw the star. And they had hope.
|Children’s Christmas party at the Lewis Center, 1925. Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection|
For most of us in America today there seems to be little remaining to link us with the experience of these Christmases past.
We are well-fed, warm and comfortable. We clutch at the old symbols, making them more and more glossy and sophisticated. Still, a pall of vapid theatricality hangs over many of these seasonal pyrotechnics. The magnificence of the show belies the fear within. What we fear is so enormous, so abstract--violence, poverty, oppression, death--that it becomes difficult to deal with concretely.
|Engraving of Leutze's famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River before the Battle of Trenton, Christmas 1776.|
Surely those who lived through those days know that this sentimental vision is just another part of seasonal display of glitter. What is real is life as it is lived.. Paradoxically, in our desperation to prop up the moribund symbols of the past, we have passed by the only part of the past that still lives. It is, quite simply, old people. They especially can give us that exquisite gift that makes the past live again for us: memory.
|A load of trees being delivered in NYC, 1910s.|
|S Army Pfc. Carl Anker, Pfc. Edmund Dill, and Sgt. Ted Bailey sharing the contents of the care package sent by Dill's wife for the Christmas holiday, somewhere in Europe, 1944.|
|A comic band, the Chelmsford Poor Law Institution House Officers Jazz Band, Chelmsford, Essex, Christmas 1920.|
Apart from the piano, the instruments are all toys, probably kazoos. Reg Hall Collection.
TBC is editor of the Wedge, neighborhood newspaper of Lowry Hill East, and a member of the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission.
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