Twas The Night Before Christmas In 1950s Philly
When I watch the movie The Christmas Story it’s like watching a replay of my childhood Christmases. I’m not sure I should tell you this, but hey, it was 66 years ago. Do you remember the scene in the movie where the kid sticks his tongue on a freezing cold flagpole? Well, that was me, but it was a light pole, not a flagpole. It took a while for me to free my tongue and no one called the firemen.
For us, Christmas started the day after Thanksgiving. The merchants on Front Street, as well as Kensington Avenue, had brightly colored Christmas lights streaming up and down the street. All the decorations came out as well. A week or so later all the houses started to light up. Santa was in his big chair at Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker’s Department Stores just waiting for us to show up. We didn’t have malls back then, so department stores were the center of Christmas activities, as was Front Street and Kensington Avenue.
My mom loved to decorate for Christmas. Colorful Santas, elves, snowmen, and wreathes all adorned our house. On Christmas Eve she always burned a Bayberry candle, which was supposed to bring you good luck all year. The candle had to burn all night, or it wouldn’t work, and you would be, God forbid, at the mercy of chance. One year my grandfather saw the candle burning after everyone went to bed, thought it was a fire hazard and put it out. To say my mother was upset is an understatement.
Speaking of my grandfather, for a number of years when I was a kid he sold Christmas trees. Each year, he made an arrangement with Nan Scott, the lady who owned a small candy shop on the corner of Wishart and Front Streets, and she allowed him to set up his trees. He used the whole sidewalk, and if you were going shopping on Front Street, you had to pass by his trees. No officials asked for a business license, no sales tax, no credit card swipe machines and no one complained. It was just a guy trying to make an extra buck. Unfortunately, today he probably couldn’t do that.
I have vivid memories of my mother and sister making wreaths from the broken pine tree branches. They tied a red ribbon on them, and he sold those as well. Speaking of Christmas trees, people generally bought them a week or more early and put them in their backyards. When I say yard, I mean a patch of concrete 6 x 16 feet. Anyway, when it came time to bring them in the house to decorate they smelled like cat pee. One thing about urban living in those days was the numerous alley cats and tomcats. At night, you could hear the loud “screams” of the cats as they looked to score. It sounded like babies crying. Since the green trees were the only vegetation available, the cats thought we put them there for them to pee on. The smell went away eventually, usually by New Year’s Day when we took the tree down.
Sometime in the late 1950s my mother got tired of the cat pee smell and bought a silver artificial tree. It came with a color wheel that reflected different rotating colors off the silver. It was cool, but I missed the cat pee smell. Later when I came home from Nam and my wife, and I rented our first apartment my mother gave us that tree. She upgraded to an artificial green tree. The silver tree lasted a couple of years more and brought some pleasure to my kids and a couple of photo ops for me.
Like the movie, we all wanted a Red Ryder BB gun: Unlike the movie, I never got one. But, my mother was sure we all received lots of toys from Santa. She would start saving in her bank-sponsored Christmas savings fund in January to be sure she could get all the presents she wanted. She also made sure she pasted all her S&H Green Stamps in the books.
My brother was a kind of rambunctious kid and got a lot more slaps than I did. One year my Grandfather, always the jokester, put coal in my brother’s Christmas stocking. Needless to say, there was pandemonium for a few minutes until my mother gave him the real stocking. One year I got a Shmoo doll from the comic strip Li’l Abner (look it up on Google). The Shmoo was said to have magical powers, and every morning it would leave something special, like an apple, an egg or a piece of candy. One morning I ran down the steps wide-eyed and anxious to see what the Shmoo had left me. I pulled the Shmoo off the bowl he was on with anticipation and reeled back in horror. The Shmoo had left me several cat turds. My Grandfather at work again.
Of course, we never wanted to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. We were too excited, but after much pleading and hollering, we ended up tramping up the steps to our 10 x 8-foot room with a single bed we shared until my brother Bill joined the Navy, and I left for the Air Force a year later. How can anyone forget getting up early on Christmas morning, running down the steps and seeing the blazing Christmas tree on a train platform and the American Flyer engine pulling a caboose chugging around the tree? Surrounding the tree was the whole family’s gifts. My Mother was sure to put them in the same place each year. I was on the left, and my brother’s gifts were on the right. The adult’s gifts were in the middle. One year my mother reversed that order. When I came down the steps, I saw that I had no gifts. I cried for five minutes until my mother convinced me that my gifts were just in a different place. What a brat I was 😊.
My Dad was always home for Christmas day. He closed the poolroom and spent time with us. Once again, the house would fill with the wonderful scent of baking turkey. We would have bacon and eggs and sometimes Scrapple for breakfast, and always we had breakfast cakes and rolls from the German bakery around the corner. Lunch was generally a sandwich, and my brother and my favorite was the potato chip, Lebanon boloney, American cheese, and Kosher pickle sandwich.
In my early years, we always had the whole family, uncles, aunts, cousins at my Grandmother’s house. She had a dining room table, and the adults crowded around it while the kids were in the kitchen. Later, after my Grandmother and Grandfather moved in with us, it was just the immediate family. Our dining room was now part of the living room, and we had no dining room table. The cousins would come over during Christmas week. My father would take his seat at the table a full ten minutes before my Mother and Grandmother were ready to serve. I think it was his way of saying, “Hurry up.”
Remember the American Flyer train set I mentioned? When we got it my brother assumed it was only his and we had many arguments about that. Because he was four years older than I was, he won most of the time. After we laid our mother to rest in 2002 at the Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem, PA., we found two baby books my mother had written, one for Bill and one for me. Talk about a tearjerker. I still tear up when I read it. Anyway, amongst the comments about our weight at different ages and about how we had grown up to be wonderful children was an entry that brought terror to my brother’s heart.
My mother had written in one of the baby books, and I quote her, “Today we bought Billy and Buddy (my childhood name) an American Flyer train set.” Once again, Mom resolved a dispute between my brother and me.