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.