Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas in the 1950s: God Rest Ye Merry

 One of my friends recently lamented that she couldn't get in the holiday spirit this year. The holiday seemed more like work than fun. Gone was the magic. I sympathize with her; I certainly don't feel the holiday excitement  of my youth, or even of a couple of decades ago.

Is this because we are grown up, jaded with years of experiences that induce the bah-humbug response? Probably. I don't much enjoy the holiday shopping ritual.  Fighting the crowds, sliding around on slick sidewalks and roads, dodging traffic, getting your credit card hacked at a big box store. . .All of this contributes to a Yuletide malaise. Macy's wants us to "Believe!" In what? The magic of mass marketing?

"Bah humbug!" Alistair Sim is brilliant as Scrooge in the 1951 film version of "A Christmas Carol."
Without yielding to a sentimental celebration of the Good Old Days, I would like to look back at more magical Christmases to find what made them so.  The most magical of course are the early childhood ones with visits from Santa.  In early December, my parents would take me to see the Real Santa, the one who worked at Horne's.  They explained that the other Santas, the ones at Kaufmann's and Gimbel's, were only assistants. Shaking with apprehension, I would tell Real Santa what I wanted, then anxiously count the days till the 25th.

The waiting on Christmas Eve was tortuous. Filled with a mixture of joy and dread, I'd wake up at dawn. In the cold house (Dad had to stoke the coal-fired furnace to get the heat going in the morning) I'd creep slowly down to the first floor, step by step, my breath hanging in the chilly air, to peek around the corner into the living room. When I saw that gifts were under the tree and my stocking was filled, I'd tiptoe back upstairs and jump back under the covers. Seeing the gifts and anticipating opening them was the magical moment, not the opening itself.
Christmas '49. I'm posing with the doll, but what I really liked was the miniature gas station (right).
Years later, as with most parents, I would participate vicariously in my children's excitement about Santa's impending visits.  This time we adults got to be the one who stayed up after the kids went to sleep, putting out the presents, taking the milk and cookie set out for Santa, leaving a note from him to them.  On at least two Eves, our daughter Ceridwen got so excited, she broke out in hives. When younger daughter Morwenna was  in the first grade, she told me that the other students had said that Santa wasn't a jolly old elf, but Dad. "Is it true?" she asked.  Having read child psychology articles that advised always telling the truth when asked point-blank about Santa, I replied, "Yes." Stopping short of plugging her ears and saying, "Lalala, I didn't hear that," she was clearly devastated. It was one of the decisions I most regretted as a parent. With one word, I took the magic out of Christmas for her.
Morwenna in happier days with Santa. No matter that he is in his 20s and has a fake beard.
 Although Santa is a major contributor to the spirit of the holiday, he is not the only one. Growing up in Homestead, I loved to see the holiday decorations and lights in the houses and on the street. To pick out a tree, my mother and I would take a half hour or more, examining one after the other in the brick Second Ward school yard until, shivering with cold, we found the perfect one. They were often pines, not the "real Christmas trees", the firs that my dad remembered from his childhood. Our tree, like most, was strung with the big colored lights (and later, bubble lights).  The three front windows each had red cellophane wreaths with an electric candle in the middle, and the spruces outside also had strings of lights.
It seemed that half the houses in Pittsburgh in the 'Fifties had these wreaths--They were so cool, daddy-o.

We had our family food traditions, most notably plum pudding.  This was made in huge quantities at St. John's Lutheran Church from my English Uncle Jack's family recipe and sold as a fund raiser. A half dozen church women, aided by my grandfather, who cracked the walnuts, labored all day, mixing the pudding and steaming it in gigantic cauldrons. Served with lemon or hard sauce, it was an exceptional once-a-year treat. 
My plum pudding is done after three hours of steaming. It embodies Christmas with the Busches.

Neither of my parents were bakers, so we relied on others for holiday treats.  My dad's favorite was fruit cake--rich, moist, and succulent. Mine was the so-called hunky cakes, those filled cold dough cookies that melt in your mouth.
Known in the vernacular as "hunky cakes", these labor-intensive cookies of Slovak derivation were a must at many Pittsburgh holiday celebrations.

Music in particular evokes special feelings of the holiday. I started to list my favorite Christmas pieces, but had to stop, realizing that I could go on for many pages.  We sang carols at school, church, in the car, at the piano, wherever. One December my Grandfather Katilius had a machine brought to the store to make sound recordings. I cut a record of "Hark! the herald angels sing"; it's somewhere in a box in my house.
Caroling with Ceridwen's family, Christmas Eve 2010.

There's a video in that box, too, of another Christmas performance: a kinescope recording of my dad's play "A Great Light" which aired live on WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, on Saturday, December 22, 1956. I played the innkeepers' daughter, a blind girl. I remember very little of the story, but vividly recall singing the Coventry Carol (Dad had no problem with anachronisms) in front of the camera, pretending I couldn't see it. I also recall going to church the next day, where some of the young children told me how glad they were I really wasn't blind.  I took it as a wonderful compliment.

With Belva Seitz in "A Great Light" on WQED-TV, Christmas 1956
Even if I have no other parties at my house each year, I always have a solstice celebration and carol sing. My Victorian house is the perfect venue for this event, and for it, I put up a tree and decorate it with dozens of old ornaments, including those I brought from my parents' house in Munhall, a drum I made out of milk bottle caps in the second grade, and a blown glass Liberty Bell, the sole survivor from my father's early 20th century Christmas trees.
Drum (left) and bell (right)
This Christmas Eve morning I was, as usual, listening to the broadcast by the King's College Choir from Cambridge, England.  When they started singing "Away in the Manger," I was hit sideways emotionally, and began to blubber.  Yes, they were tears of sadness--for all the Christmases past and gone--but also tears of happiness for the memories of those Christmases, and hope for Christmases future.
Listen to it here:
The lovely 2003 performance of "Away in the Manger" by the King's College Choir.

Singers in the King's College Choir, 1951
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Monday, September 9, 2013

150 Years: Retracing John Paul's Footsteps

     This August I made my fifth visit to Weißenstadt, Upper Franconia, Bavaria, whence my Great-Grandfather Busch emigrated in 1863. Synchronistically, but not intentionally, my first visit was in 1963 on a trip engineered by my father to meet his German cousin (first, once removed), Max .  Again unintentionally, this year's visit marked the 150th anniversary of  the emigration of John Paul Busch, aka Johan Paulus Pösch, to the USA. 
     In Darkness Visible John Paul appears as Karl Bernhard (the surname of his paternal great-grandmother).  Karl and John Paul share similar backgrounds: born in Germany, emigrated during the American Civil War, served as firemen on a U.S. Navy vessel, died in an explosion caused by saboteurs in the Homestead Works in September, 1892.
Wedding portrait of John Paul Busch and Susanna Bollinger

        My host and guide in Weißenstadt was Max's daughter and my third cousin, Hanne Heuer, a native of the town.  Hanne attempted to school me in the Weißenstadt dialect, which is unique to the town. Hanne's mother Tilly, who grew up on a nearby farm, still does not know the nuances of the town dialect, even after living there for six decades. Tilly, however, speaks German with the regional Fichtelgebirge accent, which John Paul probably spoke.
      John Paul was the eldest child of Johan G.Pösch and Katherina Ruckdäschel. I considered using her surname as Karl's in the book, but decided that it would be too weird for anglophone readers. I have since found out via ancestry.com and Hanne that Weißenstadt over the years, including today, has been crawling with Ruckdäschels.

But I digress.
1. The Town Square.  The buildings surrounding this market square were standing in 1863, when John Paul left for America.  In 1823, much of Weißenstadt was destroyed by fire, so these buildings post-date that. The square is at the top of a steep hill, apparently for protection, and the town was built around it. 
2. Wunsiedler Strasse, top. This view is taken from the same spot as the previous photo, but to the right.  Wunsiedler is one of Weißenstadt's main business streets.  The Pösch Backerei, at #1, is the second building at left.  
 3. City Hall. Presumably, there are no rats in this Rathaus, only civil servants.

4. The Bakery. This spacious three-story building has been home to many generations of Pösches.The doors at left used to be the delivery entrance for horse-drawn vehicles. The Pösches didn't become bakers until after John Paul left town. JP was trained as a tanner, but also learned how to fire a boiler in the town brewery. l-r, Tilly, me, Hanne, her brother Werner, and his wife Petra.
5. Strawberry Cake.  Made by Tilly for my birthday.

6.. Wundsiedler Strasse from the bottom. It's quite a steep slope to the square at the top.
7. The lane to the Eger River.  The city hall is at left, the church off to the right.  This steep lane, which goes from the square to the river, must have been walked by John Paul many times.
8. The Town Brewery, built after the fire in 1823, rebuilt 1895. They got water from the Eger River, which runs by the brewery. Here John Paul learned how to fire boilers, a skill that brought him fortune and misfortune.  Towns in northern Europe used to have civic breweries, where townsfolk could make their own beer.  People, including children, frequently drank weak beer because of worries about diseases spread through water.
9. House on the Eger River, across from the old brewery. This house, once grand, is now vacant and falling into ruin.  According to Tilly, decades ago townswomen would haul laundry to the river in carts to wash it. However, sometimes the laundry would look dirtier when it came out of the river than when it went in.
10. The steep hillside from the bridge over the Eger, spire of the church (Lutheran) at top.  The brewery is on the river below the bridge.
11. St. James Lutheran Church, interior.  John Paul was baptized and confirmed here, along with many other generations of Pösches.  The minister here gave Max a copy of the church records of the Pösch family, going back to Peter in 1529. The records previous to that were lost when the church was burned down during the Thirty Years' War.
12. The galleries and organ. I played this organ (Bach, what else?) in 1965.  Hanne said that when she was a child, as in John Paul's day, men and women sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary.
13. The church from the lake side of the hill.

14. Lake Weißenstadt panorama (Hanne and her husband Otto at right).  The original lake was expanded in the 1980s to shore up the region's faltering economic base.  Once an area known for porcelain factories and granite quarries, Upper Franconia fell on hard times.  The much larger lake is now a tourist center, with a huge campground, restaurants, and a fancy spa hotel on its shores. John Paul wouldn't recognize the lake today.
15. Pema bakery shop.  This commercial bakery in Weißenstadt produces heavy whole grain breads that are sold world-wide. To my amazement, my local food co-op, The Wedge, sells this bread. Small world.

16. 19th century houses.  In contrast to the house on the river, these lovely old houses are well maintained. They sit on one of the lanes behind the church.
17. Garages. These structures on the road below the Eger bridge are now used as garages, but in John Paul's day they would have been wagon and equipment sheds.

18. Potato storage sheds. For many decades, townspeople stored potatoes and other root vegetables in these little structures on the outskirts of town. Tilly said that at the end of the war, the townswomen hid in these sheds, fearing what conquering soldiers might do.  However, when the Americans arrived, the woman were relieved to find they had nothing to fear.
19. The Lutheran cemetery (chapel in background).  Generations of Pösches are buried here, including Max and his parents.

20. Looking east. Beyond the mountains in the distance (Oxenkopf, Schneeberg) is the Czech Republic, only 15 miles away. Hanne thinks that the surname Pösch might have Czech origins.

--Photos by Trilby Busch

Monday, March 4, 2013

Inventing Traditions in the Old and New Worlds

      Darkness Visible contains stories of new "traditions" invented by immigrants as part of their assimilation into American culture.  Two of these involve that most traditional holiday, Christmas. Eirwen and Gwyn Jones have to decide if they are going to get a Christmas tree, a German-American custom, for their children.  Karl Bernhard, who can't afford to buy a real tree, makes one out of a broomstick.  However, it's not only these little traditions that sometimes need to be invented or reinvented.  Colonized nations also need to redefine themselves as unique cultures by using a reconstructed or invented past.

      In 1999 at a banquet celebrating St. David's Day, I gave a talk on "The Invention of Welsh Tradition" to the Minnesota St. David's Society. A large part of my talk was derived from historian Prys Morgan's scholarly article, "From a Death to a View: The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period."  I thought Morgan's account of the search for a new Welsh identity in the late 18th and early 19th century fascinating. For example, I was greatly amused by the shenanigans of Iolo Morganwg (born Edward Williams) in promoting his fabrication that the triple harp is a Welsh invention and in forging fake bardic poetry and documents to show that Welsh Prince Madoc did indeed make it to the New World.
Iolo Morganwg, "Eddie of Glamorgan" 1747-1826

      Some of the attendees were upset by my talk.  How could I undermine all their cherished beliefs about the "Land of Song" (another Romantic invention that Morgan takes on in the article)?  It's probably a good thing that I didn't give a talk to a Scottish group based on Hugh Trevor-Roper's "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland," wherein he traces the development of the kilt and tartan "traditions." I might have been,  in "Monty Python" nomenclature,"slit up a treat."
An old postcard of the memorial to Prince Madoc in Mobile, AL, the site of his alleged arrival in North America.
       Recently I ran into some people from South Dakota who were completely committed to the belief that Prince Madoc came to America via Mobile and made his way up the Mississippi to come in contact with the Mandan tribe in South Dakota in 1171, scholarship to the contrary be damned.  I prudently was not drawn into a debate with them.  As T.S. Eliot famously wrote, "Humankind cannot bear too much reality."  But I am not surprised at the heated resistance encountered by historians and folklorists on this issue.  In response to the resistors, I point to the authority of Prys Morgan himself--author, retired history professor, president of the National Eisteddfod of Wales at Swansea, president of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, joint director of the Iolo Morganwg project at the Centre for Welsh and Celtic Studies, and a Founding Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.  You can't get more Welsh than that.
     Inventing traditions has been only part of the reconstruction of a national identity in the former colonies of England in the British Isles, namely Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  Twentieth-century Welsh nationalists successfully saved ir hen iaith (the old language), Welsh, from being obliterated by English, and have secured its place as a living modern language.
       At the turn of the last century, Irish nationalists took on the even bigger task of developing a modern Ireland through its literature.  Declan Kiberd, in his 1996 work, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, "offers a vivid account of the personalities and texts, English and Irish alike, that reinvented the country after centuries of colonialism. The result is a major literary history of modern Ireland, combining detailed and daring interpretations of literary masterpieces with assessments of the wider role of language, sport, clothing, politics, and philosophy in the Irish revival" (Goodreads).
Prince Madoc saw flying saucers in South Dakota! (Just kidding)

      But there's also a disturbing aspect to these "inventions." From Queen Elizabeth I, who used the Madoc story to undermine Spain's claims in the New World, through the 19th Century, the British had a vested interest in the legend, which first appeared in a 15th-century poem.  It's unfortunate that the true believers of these "histories" often unintentionally treat other cultures as the colonial powers treated the native peoples they colonized--as inferiors.  An internet search of sites about the Madoc legend revealed that a number of them, including the BBC site, hail Madoc as the "discoverer of America." Ask the original native peoples what they think about that claim.  It suggests that anything deemed worthwhile by European culture, from prehistoric stone forts in Alabama to the Mandans' use of boats resembling the coracle. were invented by people from the Old World.  In the 18th century early British explorers spread the story that the languages of the indigenous peoples of America are related to Welsh, the legacy of Prince Madoc.  According to the invaders, American Indians apparently have little they can call their own.
      But the adherents to the Madoc story can provide no documented proof for their claims, except perhaps the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg. I accept the consensus view of scholars like Early American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who contend that the Madoc legend is just that--a story that got traction after being used for centuries by various persons and groups (an English monarch, Welsh nationalists, British explorers, Welsh enthusiasts in the US) to further their agendas.

A verifiable, real "Prince Madoc", a research vessel of the University of Wales, Bangor, shown here in Belfast Lough.
       But I am not saying that these inventions are somehow bad or disreputable.  In fact, they have been an important part of the birth of the modern post-colonial nations of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Perhaps the biggest irony is that Iolo Morganwg used the Madoc legend to rebuild a national identity of Wales separate from that of the power that colonized Wales, England. It's a common misconception that myths are untruths, while actually they are potent metaphorical expressions of cultural identity.  As the Merriam-Webster online dictionary puts it, myths are stories of  "ostensibly historical events that serve to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice." 
      My family has constructed several Welsh" traditions" that have no connection with the practices of my Welsh ancestors--the making of Welsh cakes for St. David's Day, for example.  I have also adopted other traditions from countries with which I have no ancestral connections, like the serving of Icelandic skyr around the Christmas holidays.  These traditions, whether old or new, familial or adopted, are what gives my family a sense of who we are and where we came from, that is, our identity as Americans.
      New Americans like Eirwen and Gwyn often have a difficult time deciding which is the more important part of their identity--the Old World or the New.  My Grandfather Katilius, an immigrant from Lithuania, wanted his children to learn the Lithuanian language, but my grandmother, who emigrated to America as a young child, was of a different mind.  She wanted her children to speak English only; she wanted them to be instantly identifiable as Americans. Soviet Russia intervened as well to block communication between my grandfather and his relatives back in the Old Country.  My grandmother's wish was granted.  If an American said to my mother, "I'm German," or "I'm Slovak," (meaning their ethnicity) my mother would proudly reply, "I'm an American."
      If you want to believe that Prince Madoc made it to South Dakota or that the Vikings erected a runestone in Kensington, Minnesota, go right ahead.  Drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day, do the Highland fling in a kilt.  Just don't try to convince me that these are derived from historical fact.  If you want to believe, just do it.
          King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,
          Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;
          Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,
          Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.

                                                                    --R.S. Thomas "Taliesin 1952"

The Church of St Hywyn. Aberdaron (built 1137). where R.S. Thomas served as vicar.