Christmastime during my early years (the 1930s) was not the bright, sparkling season we celebrate today. It was quite solemn and dreary in comparison. They were tough years for families. Jobs were scarce and money was tight. Our winters seemed colder and longer. Very little traffic on the streets (we had hardly any autos) and the snow seemed to stay around forever. Houses were dimly lit with the smallish light bulbs. (We had gas lights on the streets.)
On Christmas Eve at midnight, neighbors huddled together in the warmest attire in a cold, dimly lit church to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We had each other, and our faith was strong.
However, we did enjoy a bright spot during the Christmas season. Our parish church, the Epiphany Church in our neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had the good fortune to have Father Nall (I think that is the spelling of his name), who was always concerned about the kids. (Father instructed us for Holy Communion and Confirmation.) He provided some Christmas cheer for the kids and their families. He would round up all the kids and direct us into producing a spectacular Christmas show enjoyed by everyone. After the show, he would present all the children with a small, colorful box of hard candy.
No family in our area had a Christmas tree—we couldn’t afford it. One year, I remember my dad decided he would have a tree for us. On Christmas Eve, after midnight, he walked in the deep snow to Washington Avenue (about ten to twelve city blocks from home) where the freight trains came in with the trees. After midnight they dumped the trees that were not sold.
My father brought home a big tree. My brother, my sister, and I were thrilled. My dad placed the tree in the corner of the dining room—not in the cold, leather-chaired parlor we never sat in.
We sat around the dining room table with the multicolored chandelier hanging low over it and ate oranges, toasted chestnuts, and drank warm milk spiked with coffee. The aroma of the tree, chestnuts roasting, and the orange peels we tossed into the kitchen coal stove made the night quite cozy and enjoyable.
We didn’t receive toys for Christmas. We were happy to get a sweater, a wool hat, warm gloves, something we really needed. One year, I did get a bright red umbrella—something I asked for. That was the year I spied the umbrella in the closet before Christmas—that ended my belief in Santa Claus.