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Christmas, Circa 1935 PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, November 30 2006 19:00
The 1935 Christmas that we see in old magazines and films can seem merely a Norman Rockwell never-never-land, an idealistic presentation of a world that was, in fact, far from ideal. But even in those Depression years, Christmas for a family like mine could be abundant, both materially and spiritually.  

What I remember most about my earliest Christmases is the profusion of gifts and the transformation of time.

The day felt different from any other time. At an early morning hour, my father went downstairs first to turn on the lights and to take one last look around to see if Santa Claus had really arrived. As we followed down the staircase, we children felt a delightful anticipation that was almost better than the gifts themselves.

But the gifts could be memorable as well. One year I got a Lionel train and worked with my father to get it going. The locomotive, turned on by the transformer, would navigate the tracks, up and down hills, and around curves.

My brother and sister and I set to empty our stockings pinned up on the mantle piece. Out would come small objects, knickknacks for our pleasure. Despite advance word about finding lumps of coal for bad behavior, it never happened.

All of this happened in a room where the Christmas tree, with its lights and angels, took pride of place. There also the Christmas crib drew attention, with the small figures dramatizing holy people and events.

The time soon came when we would have to defer play and get ready for church. In those days Catholics like us did not eat or drink anything before Mass, so we did not wait until late in the morning before going off to our parish church, where the sober austerity of Advent had given way to festivity.

There joyous music resounded, red poinsettias decorated the altar, and people somehow looked different from the way they usually did.  The priest now wore white or gold vestments, a sign of liturgical rejoicing.

I knew us all to be in no ordinary time, and I felt myself transported into a new sphere of being. In fact so focused was I on the events of the day that I was able to lose consciousness of time altogether.

Home from church we would have a more hearty breakfast than usual and then return to our gifts. Later in the day, my grandmother and aunt would come, the latter bringing frozen pudding ice cream, a flavor all of us kids detested. My maternal grandmother was our favorite relative, a woman whose love for us was unconditional, like God’s.

My father cut the roast when we settled down at the dining room table in the mid afternoon and we ate our Christmas dinner. I tended to eat too much on such occasions but afterward would go outside and throw a football around with neighboring boys. Or, if there was snow on the ground, I might try out a new sled.

After a simple supper at day’s end, I would be sent to bed early, assured by parents that I would have time to play with my things on other days. Though I would not admit it, I felt agreeably tired, ready for sleep after the festivity of the day.

Looking back over the decades, I still feel affection for this kind of Christmas. Granted how middle-class it was, full of the rituals that others of our time, place, and economic station followed, our form of celebration had its own power.

We knew other children were not so blessed with material goods as we, but that did not stop us from being thankful for what we had been given.

From this celebration I received a palpable sense of God and God’s goodness. Because our Christmas celebrated events centered on Bethlehem so many centuries before, I learned feelings of awe, reverence, and love, qualities that mark all true religion. God was the source of abundance. He overflowed in love for us and in other gifts.

And the time felt holy. Christmas day made me and other family members feel ourselves to be in the presence of someone and some things different. This was more than human time.

Richard Griffin