Christmas's Past

Remembering past Christmas's is something old people do. After Scrooge reached a few miles on his odometer, he was forced to reminisce about some unpleasantness with his past. But even Scrooge eventually became sentimental about the holiday.

In the 1930s, there were kids in our small town, who used to wonder what all the fuss was about with the Cratchits.They didn't seem to have it so bad. We had one family that was living the saga of the Cratchits right down to the youngest carrying a crutch for his deformed leg.

Most kids then, like those today, eagerly awaited Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They would meet later in the day or the next and show friends what they " got for Christmas." After showing off a gift like a flashlight or a jack-knife, they would then bring out the Big-Little books and make arrangements for swapping after they were read. Girls, of course, got dolls. Some were homemade.

Almost every family had a turkey dinner. Ask an Italian from that time and he will tell you he had a capon after the home made raviolis, bracioles, sausages, short ribs and meat balls.

The week before, altar boys used to anxiously wait for the Mass assignments for Christmas. The older kids were lucky because they got Midnight Mass. The younger kids all wanted the first Mass at 7 A.M so they could have the rest of the day free with their gifts. The unlucky draw was 11 o'clock Mass. Father Foley gave us his annual admonishment about the proper greeting to use for the Holy Day. He would say that the word "Merry" is something that only English Protestants use. As devout Catholics we weren't supposed to say " Merry Christmas" but " Happy Christmas " was OK. Once we listened for at least a half-hour about the crime of an X taking the place of Christ. It seems a kid made a card for him and he drew the words MERRY XMAS because he probably ran out of room.

There may be two reasons toys from that era are in such demand as antiques. They are extremely rare because most people couldn't afford them. They also carried the label MADE IN JAPAN. Which meant they were made of shoddy materials and would barely last until New Years Day.

All Christmas trees seemed to be about nine-feet tall which allowed one foot for the ceiling limit. A large stepladder was needed to reach the top for the star. The tree was placed in the front room or, as it was called when company arrived, the parlor. The lower branches were so large it was next to impossible to get the thing through a door. Metal pre-fabricated bases were not available and if they were, no self-respecting father would buy one. This was his opportunity to show what he could do with a saw, a hammer, nails and lumber. Amateurs would simply fashion two over-lapping boards, with end supports to make it lie flat and then nail the base into the tree. If they were lucky, it was fairly vertical, with little tilt. Those who had mechanical skills were able to design side supports for the tree base.

Most of the ornaments were nativity scenes, angels and other religious objects. The lights were connected in series, which meant that if one bulb blew or became loose they all went out. We had to spend time checking every bulb to find the one that was causing the trouble. There probably were bulb strings that were connected in parallel (individual bulbs) but we didn't know anyone who had one. The tree went up the week before Christmas and didn't come down until a few days after New Years. The only thing that saved many homes from fires due to dried out trees was the drafty houses with doors constantly opening to let in moisture. Steam heated radiators helped.

In school we sang Christmas carols most of December for music class. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which most of the residents in town owed money to, provided booklets with the words and music. Nobody understood the notation for the music but just about everybody could read the words. Father Foley carefully previewed the booklets to see if the words passed his muster. He complained at one Mass that too many of the carols were written by and for the " English". The only carol we heard at Mass was " O Come All Ye Faithful. Sung in Latin as Adeste Fidelis.

Christmas Eve in Italian homes started about noon. The table was adorned with a gallon of homemade wine and food. Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence, which meant that meat was prohibited until after midnight. The Italians found a way to conform to the laws of the Church and still have a feast. Somehow, the sacrifice of abstaining from meat didn't seem that harsh with shellfish (clams, oysters, shrimp, scallops) available.(This was known as The Feast Of Seven Fishes. Seven for the Seven Sacraments or the Seven Hills of Rome.) A favorite was (and still is) baccala salad with vinegar peppers and olives. (See Baccala In Recipes). Very few Italians went to Midnight Mass. One reason was they didn't want to disperse their wine-laden breaths over the congregation. Another, which is probably the prime reason, fasting was required for four hours before Mass and that was too much to ask of anybody.

There are, of course, many pleasant memories of Christmas when I was on the other generational side, when Gloria and I provided the gifts and dinners. What are we going to get for the boys this year? And how about the girls? Let's try having a Christmas Goose just like Julia Childs cooked on TV. But, let’s not forget the raviolis and all the fixings.
Open a beer, get out the pliers, wrenches, hammer and screw driver, and get busy assembling bicycles, a hobbyhorse, a kitchen set and other toys that occupied little room in a box but filled the living room when assembled. Have another beer and move on to the rear wheel assembly as "clearly" depicted in the instructions. Have another and relax after disassembling the rear-wheel and starting over. Have another and throw away the instructions. Go to bed in the wee hours and wake up with your mouth, forehead and stomach yearning for tomato juice, coffee, aspirin and quiet. All were available except the latter. Wrapping paper is flying so fast the room looks like a blizzard of color. "Dad! Look at the bicycle Santa gave me. Did he put the seat on backwards?"

" EEEEEEEE! A Chatty Kathy Doll! Just what I wanted!" Anne wasn't the only little girl in America who wanted a Chatty Kathy. We had to shop everywhere within the jurisdiction of Plymouth and Norfolk counties to find one. The ads appeared during the break between Howdy Doody and Mickey Mouse. She had a bright smile and blonde hair. But what set her apart from other dolls was her "Chatty" nature. All a little girl had to do was pull on a small plastic ring that stuck out from the doll's back and a string would appear. Pull the string until a resistance is met and let go. " Hi! My name is Chatty Kathy" would come from somewhere as the string and ring returned. The Gregorys heard the famous Chatty Kathy greeting only once. More than one little girl pulled on the ring and string and separated them. I don't believe there is anything more traumatic than watching the string disappear into the doll's back because the ring came loose and all the while knowing this is the last time this creature will greet you. Chatty Cathy wasn't the only one left speechless.