CHRISTMAS IN 1919

 ©1999Russell Odell
rodell@ivic.net
(All rghts reserved)

The cultures of  Christmas have changed a bit since I was  a kid in 1919. We did not have pre-Christmas sales beginning in October. No Christmas lay-away plans at  the village store. Never  saw signs like, BUY  NOW---PAY LATER and plastic credit  cards were nonexistent.  That was an era  when Christmas was not  commercialized.  People  seemed happier:  smiles  were  broader ,  eyes sparkled when they said, "Merry Christmas!" Hand shakes were more snappy and conversation  livelier. Everyone was  waiting for  Santa Claus to  arrive in another few days.

Christmas  moved at  a  slower pace  than it  does now.  There were  no busy  airports  or train  stations  crowded with  people going  to visit  far away  relatives. No busses or  taxis to take you to and fro, no snow plows to open  up the roads. The  horse and cutter were your transportation. It was slower,  but more refreshing and animated.

The village store keeper  shoveled off his porch and a small path leading to  the hitching post,  that was it. The deep snow lay where  it fell. The store  was never  crowded. John Keating and his wife ran  the store and people were  not in  a hurry. They took  the time to spend a  few words with their smile.  They sold every thing from coal scuttles, lamps, general clothing, candy and  odds and  ends of  household things. Anything  special was ordered  from the  Sears and Roebuck catalog.  He also ran the Post Office. After Christmas, if  you were nosy, you  could check out what your neighbors got for Christmas by  looking up  the article in the  catalog and find out  how much they paid for  it. (They had nosy people then too.)

Christmas shopping  is easier today with our modern  malls that carry such a  variety of things that itís mind boggling, with prices to match.

If  you love  someone  just a  little, you  had  better make  it at  least a  twenty-five dollar present. If you really love someone, better make it fifty  to a hundred bucks.  If you are madly in love, be on  the safe side and go a  couple  of hundred. If  you're so blindly  in love  you can't eat  or sleep,  well, youíre in deep financial trouble. Better use the credit card.

I thought I saw Santa Claus once or twice, but I am not sure. Long before he  came and  for some  time after he left,  you could feel the  presence of his  spirit, the spirit of Christmas.

The  holiday season began  very subtly  with Thanksgiving and  gradually the  house began to take on the aroma of Christmas. With pies baking in the oven,  especially those apple and  mince pies with fragrant spices. My father would  say, "The  house is  beginning to smell  as though Santa Claus  is coming to  dinner."

It was  nice going  to church during  the holidays. Mother  drove our Morgan  horse hitched to a  fancy cutter. The harness and sleigh had their bells and  the horse jogged a merry jingle bell tune all the way to church. If you have  never ridden  in a  sleigh and listened  to the jingle of  sleigh bells, you  have missed a wonderful  episode of living, especially on a moonlight night.

The history  of sleigh bells goes  back to 500 BC  where the Bible tells, in  Zachariah 14:20, of horses  harness with bells inscribed, "Holiness unto the  Lord." For my mother, the sleigh bells had a special meaning. Their jingling  was making a joyful  sound unto the Lord, to let Him know we were on our way  to church for the Christmas services.

Our  church was a  typical country church  set in  a clearing of  mighty oak  trees, the  kind you see on  old fashion embossed Christmas  cards; the kind  you did  not put in an  envelop to mail, just a  penny stamp and an address.

The church  was painted white because  white was a sign  of purity. It was a  sinless  building. For  some unknown  architectural reason, churches  had to  have  a  steeple to  hang  a bell.  Neither  of these  two requirements  had  anything to do with religion or getting you to heaven.

The use of church bells began in 400 AD when Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola in  Campania, Italy,  put the first bell  on the roof of  his church. >From this  comes the  word campanology, the  art of bell ringing.  This later developed  into a set  of tuned bells called a carillon.  The first carillon in America  was a  set of  eight bells installed in  the belfry of the  Old North Church  (now Christ  Church), Boston,  Mass., in 1745.  Our church in  the woods had  only one monotone bell. On rainy, nights, it sounded very lonesome.

Old one-bell  country churches  are hard to  find today. There are  a few of  them around but you  have to look for them. Now we have million dollar glass  cathedrals and marble sanctuaries.  I wonder if God has moved up to a higher  class neighborhood.  It's a far cry from the  olive trees under which Christ  taught.

Once  inside my  little country Church,  you would  find our preacher  was a  plain man, with a  pleasant voice that boomed out from the pulpit as loud as  the  ringing bell  in the steeple  of his  church. He delivered  his sermons  without the  gyrations of the present day  TV-preachers who wiggle like rock  singers. He  did not pace back  and forth like some animal  in a cage at the  zoo. He  did not  rant and rave while  swinging his Bible around  in the air  like  some flag  twirler in  a Fourth  of July  parade. He didn't  shout his  message like  a fish peddler hawking his wares.  My mother said he conducted  himself  much  like Christ  as  he taught  along  the shores  of Galilee.  I  reminded her  she never saw Christ teach anywhere, for  which I got a loving  swat on the butt.

The preacher's suit came from the mail order catalog. He wore no fancy hats,  no flowing  robes, carried  no scepter, swung no  smoking incense containers  and, I  noticed, sometimes, his shoes weren't shined.  As I look in churches  today, I  wonder, what happened to these simple men  of God? Where would you  find these humble servants?  The only time you see them is on TV in some old  western movie. How did religion get so complicated? The Bible hasn't changed  since 1919 and I don't believe God has either.

During the Christmas services our church was cold. We sat wearing our coats.  Sometimes we  wore our mittens just as the Pilgrims  did many years ago. The  preacher kept  one hand in his  pocket to keep his  fingers warm to turn the  pages of  his big Bible. The church had no  central heating system, just two  big pot  bellied stoves that glowed  red, but kept only  themselves warm. In  summer the ladies brought  their hand fans, and kept them in motion like the  wings of birds flying south for the winter.

Folks  didn't come  to church  on Sunday to  be seen  or because it  was the  custom, or the proper thing to do on Sunday. They came to pay their respects  to their  God. The Sabbath was the Lord's day.  However, I noticed on Easter  and Christmas, attendance doubled. These two days got to the heathen and the  hypocrites. It took the  birth and the death of Jesus Christ to remind them,  they were supposed to be Christians.

In  early America  during the  time of  the Pilgrims  and the  Puritans, the  recognition  of  Christmas  was forbidden.  That  great  dream of  religious  freedom  for  everyone  did   not  exist  amongst  these  early,  so  called  Christians. Wherever the Puritan settled, you had to obey their doctrines or  you were  run out of the community. When you were  run out of the settlement  you were forced into  the woods where the Indians were waiting for you. That  was not a very Christian act.

Christmas was outlawed in  New England until the middle of the 19th century.  Christmas  did not  gain  acceptance in  America until  the  immigrants from  Ireland and Germany grew  in population strength. Gradually, the rest of the  people,  except some  of  the churches,  saw it  as a  day of  happiness and  accepted it as such.

In 1856, in Boston, Christmas was a regular work day. Those not reporting to  work were subject to being fired. Many were. Schools were open. Children not  coming  to  school were  severely  reprimanded  and ridiculed  by the  other  religious children.

Another Christmas memory is  when my father and I went into the woods to get  our Christmas  tree. This was not always an easy  thing to do, especially if  the snow was very deep. Walking through deep snow, if you get your feet wet,  can  give  you a  miserable time.  You  are glad  to  get home  next to  the  fireplace. Last year I  bought one of those plastic trees that are odorless.  The fresh smell of the pine tree is missing. The smell of the real Christmas  tree now  comes in spray cans for ninety -nine cents  plus tax. The real joy  of going  out into  the woods for  your own tree  is gone.  It is a  part of  Christmas that  died a long time ago.

Where  did this  Christmas  tree idea  get started?  Historians tell  us the  history of  the Christmas tree began with the  Romans, the Egyptians and the   medieval Germans.  They used  trees in their religious  rituals. Some groups  worshipped trees as a symbol of their gods.

When my  father had  the tree set  up, the next  fun thing  was trimming the  tree. We popped our  own corn and strung it on a thread. Then dipped it into  a  bowl of sugar  syrup that had  been colored  with cake coloring,  red and  green. It  made the pop corn look pretty and the  sugar coating made it nice  to eat afterward. After  all the decorations were hung on the tree, the last  thing to go on  were the candles. The candles were lit only on Christmas eve  and Christmas  night. They were a  very dangerous Christmas decoration. Fire  was  always a  hazard.  Christmas candles  have  burned down  many homes  on  Christmas night.

I remember one sad  Christmas night when fire destroyed a farmer's barn. The  fire cast a sickening  yellowish glow over the Christmas sky. Everyone for a  few miles  around, stopped their Christmas festivities  and went to his aid.

There wasn't much one  could do to put out the fire except in helping to get  the  stock out. Different  families took  what stock they  could accommodate  back to their  barns for the rest of the winter. My  father did too. We kept  and fed  them along  with our own.  This wasn't done  for money.  It was the  normal thing  to do in those  days. We did it for  him because he would have  done it for us. It was the unwritten law of humanity.

Come spring  , when  the snows of  winter left, all neighbors  pitched in to  rebuild our friend a new barn. Much material was donated. Labor was free. We  rebuilt his  barn for the sake of one human helping  another. This is how it  was done 70 to 80 years ago.

Who started the idea of putting candles on the Christmas tree? It was Martin  Luther  (1483-1546). He  did it  for his  children. The  idea caught  on and  spread throughout  Europe. In time it spread to  America, and finally, to my  house. The  candles lasted 10 to  15 minutes and had  to be replaced as they  burned  out.  Fortunately, for  safety's  sake,  we no  longer use  candles.  Christmas  lights are pretty,  but there  is something about  the flickering  candle  light, making all  the glittering  ornaments dance, that  no colored  bulb can  do. I have always  felt when the candles  left the Christmas tree,  part of  Christmas left  with it. It  was an era  that was, and  is no more.

My mother had a  small nativity scene beneath our tree. My father, called it  "God's happy little barnyard,"  which upset the minister of the church quite  a bit. The minister  told us the nativity scene originated in Greece, Italy,  in 1223, by St.  Francis of Assisi. He assembled the scene using real people  and animals. It became part of Christmas.

Christmas  caroling, kissing  under the  mistletoe, and exchanging  of gaily  wrapped presents  began with  the English. It  was a lovely  addition to the  spirit of  giving but it was also the  beginning of the commercialization of  Christmas.

Like everything else, Christmas had its lean times along with its fat times.  I remember some very  lean Christmases when the presents were scant. But the  love  that  came with  them  was  just as  big,  sincere and  warm. Love  is  something you  cannot buy in a  store, put in a  box, wrap with pretty paper  and tie with a  bow. It has to come from the heart.  It's the only source of  supply.

The presents  were very different from  what they are today.  Most were hand  made by  the giver. A pair  of knitted mittens; A  woolen scarf, or a couple  pair of  knitted socks. The store merchandises such as  a heavy coat or snow  shoes, perhaps a sleigh, had labels on them, Made in America. In those days,  no item carried a  label saying, "Made in Taiwan," "Made in Korea," "Made in  Japan."  When you  do your  Christmas shopping  this year, read  the labels.  Things have changed since 1919.

Christmas cards went through  a drastic change in the past seventy years. An  embossed card  use to  cost a penny.  A fancy card  with glittering speckles  cost a nickel and came with an envelop. It cost a penny to send the card and  twice as much to send one in an envelope.

I  had a  special aunt  to whom  I was  going to  send a fancy  nickel card.  However, the  cards were next to the candy counter and  they too were only a  penny. That  year, my aunt  got a penny card  and I got four  cents worth of  Christmas candy.  She never knew  my Christmas spirit weakened  at the candy  counter, and I hope Santa Claus never told her.

Christmas  cards  started in  Early  America  in 1847  when  Louis Prang  of  Roxbury,  Massachusetts,  engraved  Christmas  cards and  exported  them  to  England.  The  following  year  the people  of  Roxbury  asked  him to  make  Christmas  cards  for the  people  of Roxbury.  He  did, and,  that was  the  beginning of a billion dollar a year enterprise.

Sixty years  later, in 1907, Emily Perkins Bissel  decided to raise money to  help fight  tuberculosis. She designed a small seal  the size of the postage  stamp, and had them  printed. They went on sale that year in the Wilmington,  Delaware  Post Office.  The  first year  sales were  over $3,000.  After you  addressed, sealed  and stamped your Christmas card,  it became the custom to  put a  couple of Bissel's Christmas seals on the  back side of the envelope,  to help raise money to fight that dreaded disease.

Three years  before Bissel's  Christmas seals, a Danish  Postal clerk, Einer  Holboell  made Christmas  seals  to raise  funds to  build a  new Childrenís  Hospital. His idea was a success. This method of fund raising for charitable  causes soon caught on, especially around Christmas time when most people are  full of  the spirit of giving. No doubt, this is  where Bissel got the idea.

Where did lovable Old  Santa Claus originate? Once upon a time, legend says,  there lived  in Myra,  in Asia Minor,  a good bishop  known far  and wide as  Saint  Nicholas.  Very  little  is known  of  his  life.  Stories about  him  emphasize his  kindness to the poor, especially  the children. Others say he  came  from  the same  place  gods came  from.  During the  Middle Ages,  St.  Nicholas  had the  habit of suddenly  appearing out  of the sky,  and saving  sailors from  being shipwrecked  during violent storms. He  is also credited  with helping poor young maidens to gain a dowry so they could get married.

In the 17th century, the Dutch of New Amsterdam, corrupted his name from St.  Nicholas to Saint Claus.  Through the years the name changed to Santa Claus.  From then on his reputation grew quickly to its present status and the glory  that is Christmas.

At the  start of the 19th  century, Santa was portrayed  as a tall, thin and  very stern  patriarch dressed in the  sober robes of a  Bishop. Although, as  legend has it, St.  Nicholas was a good and kind man, his stern face did not  help   to   spread  much   joy.   His   appearance  was   just  too   stern.

In 1822  something happened. Clement C.  Moore wrote his famous  poem, T'was the Night Before Christmas . This poem changed the appearance of Santa Claus to a jolly, chubby, sky-riding, reindeer driving, happy looking Santa Claus. Two years later, in 1824, the famous cartoonist Thomas Nash, portrayed Santa to match the spirit  of Moore's poem. It was Nash who dressed Santa in a red and white suit. This is the Santa we know today, but because of the original good old St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, we can still refer to Santa Claus as Good Old St. Nick!

Did you ever wonder  why we hang our stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, and  expect to  find them full  of goodies on  Christmas morning? Well, once upon a time  there lived three sisters who wanted to get married. Their father was very  poor and they had no dowry. It was  a custom in those days, no dowry, no marriage. That night, before the girls went to bed, they washed their stockings  and hung them by the fireplace  to dry. Christmas Eve, when everyone was  asleep, St. Nicholas tossed three  little bags of gold through their window. A bag landed in each of the sister's stockings. They got their dowry  and finally,  were  married. And  thus  began the  custom of  hanging stockings by the fireplace on Christmas Eve.

Christmas is  a many splendor  thing. It has something  for everybody. There are those  who go to church on Christmas and those  who don't. Those that do not are  not heathens or sinful.  The churches have their  beliefs and don't agree with  each other.  They are entitled  to their beliefs  and others are entitled to theirs. Judge not that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1).

Christmas is for everybody.  Sinners or saints, believers and non-believers, white or  black, regardless of the country of  your birth. Santa Claus loves all  of  us as  long as  we  are good  boys  and girls,  regardless of  age.

This Christmas  thousands of  people will go  to many different  churches or other  places to  celebrate  the birth  of Christ.  The  ritual itself  is a beautiful  story. Many  believe every  word of  it as absolute  truth. Being human, man believes what he wants to believe and we all believe differently. If that  is what  makes one happy at  Christmas, so be it.  "Peace on earth, good will  towards men" is only  a nice saying like,  "Have a nice day". Our earth has  not known peace for  thousands of years. Good  will toward men is overshadowed by the greed  to capture the almighty dollar. There is not much good will  toward men  in Northern Ireland,  or Africa, or in  the Far East. But, on  Christmas night  the moon will  shine over these places  just as it will shine  over my house and  yours---and nothing will change,  and it will still be, Christmas Night.

How do I look at that wonderful happy day called Christmas? I believe one of the greatest teachers was Jesus. I like what he said in Matt. 22:21, "Render therefore unto Caesar the  things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are  God's." Thus,  for Christmas, I  render unto others  the choice of their beliefs and unto myself the choice of my mine. If that was good enough for Christ, it's good enough for me.

Where does this leave you and me? It leaves you and me as individuals to do the best we can. We grab every bit of happiness that comes our way and grab it with both hands, and hang on to it tightly as long as we can. But don't just grab for yourself. Make sure you also give. Love is a funny commodity, it only works when it is shared. Until you learn to share it, you will never understand what Christmas is all about.
 
 

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