CHRISTMAS LONG AGO
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 25, 1908 [p. 15]
Those natives of Washington whose frosted brows or polished plates suggest their eligibility for membership in the Oldest Inhabitants' Association can recall Christmas times of sixty or more years ago with a pang of regret that they have not the vim to participate in the festivities as they did then.
Washington was in youth, say sixty years ago, her less than forty thousand people, a third of the colored race, living in less than six thousand dwellings, and these mostly of frame on streets, if improved at all, covered by a coat of gravel only.
The larger portion of the population was from the south. Christmas customs of that section were by them observed. The German element also made the customs of the fatherland felt.
A few families here, not partial to the mode which then prevailed, soon assimilated with the major part of the community. And in the general merriment and good humor, accompanied by the nosie of pistols, firecrackers, etc., they heartily chimed in. The whole population celebrated, and none could sleep Christmas morning if so disposed.
The mistletoe, holly and evergreens were then in vogue, but not near to the extent now. Churches were the greatest consumers, some of them stringing festoons plentifully, besides using devices and mottoes on the walls. For homes the demand for trees was not near so general as now, but few of them were devoid of some decoration and there were many wreaths in evidence.
The pandemonium which broke out at daybreak was continuous throughout the day. In fact, there was not a semblance of quiet until night. There were but a few dozen officers to preserve the peace. But much of the city being occupied by detached houses in little clusters, those inclined to overstep the bounds of propriety could easily keep a lookout for police.
All boys and some girls participated in the furor, in which were the reports of firearms, the favorite being a small brass pistol; sounds of horns, drums, pans, etc. Firecrackers there were in limited quantity, and they were more costly then, as well as difficult to buy.
The corporation laws placed a penalty on the sale of all kinds of fireworks, but they were sold, all the same. Under the general laws the oath of a colored person needed corroboration to be admissible. This being known, the colored boy had the advantage of being able to purchase fireworks, and through them did the white boys get their supplies of noise-making material – crackers, torpedoes, etc. – and proceeded to set them off.
There was amity between the races, for the day at least, any one capable of making a noise being welcome to the gang. These were aided by any old kettle or pan on which noise could be made; also by drums, whistles, horns, etc.
In the second ward a country boy had introduced an instrument which was a torture when quiet was wanted. In a short time the boys throughout the city had been supplied. It was made of tin, with a thin strip of tough wood. Soon a boy learned to blow a harsh note upon it, and deftly drop it out of sight. In a little time the boys with this instrument became a nuisance, but was cheerfully tolerated in Christmas times.
Those in the community who were tormented by the boys frequently in these times were mostly forgotten, but occasionally some one would, however, be singled out as a target. An old shoemaker, having his shop on a street corner, unfortunately for him was in appearance a veritable Kriss Kringle, minus the bag of gifts, etc. Nature had given him a rotund figure, red face, surmounted by bushy white hair and fringed with a white beard and heavy eyebrows, and, being a great smoker, a pipe was constantly in his mouth.
It was known far and wide by the boys that when not at work he would go out to the corner and smoke for hours. When on a Christmas morning the weather was pleasant the old man on the corner was too great an attraction for the boys.
One day when the old man appeared nearly a hundred boys were on the other corners. One party sang a doggeral in which the name was introduced, and the ire of the old man was raised. He started for the offending crowd. But the others, in turn, taking up the song, the old man was soon perplexed as to which of the three gangs to pursue, unable to reach all.
Then from three directions firecrackers came, driving the now irate man to his home.
Good Cheer Not Abbreviated
Here were free drinks of eggnog, Tom and Jerry, apple toddy, hot whiskey punch, besides straight liquors. It is stated, however, that fewer drunken people were then seen on the streets than on former occasions, when the sideboards in private houses became public bars at Christmas.
Indeed, by some families it was regarded as the proper thing to get drunk. There is a legend that years ago Christmas was once celebrated about a corpse of an old man. Every time the watchers took a glass some one would say, "Don't forget the old man," when he would be raised up in the coffin, his jaws opened and the glass applied.
Though there was drinking and carousing and in street and houses merriment and good feeling, there was occasionally a disturbance – seldom one calling for the police to use harsh measures. Prisoners were generally good-natured and regarded an arrest as part of the program.
In one instance a small fight took place at a corner grocery which bore the credit of a "speak-easy." The proprietor was charged with having doctored the barrel. The lie being passed, fists were brought into action. On the approach of the police order was restored.
In the matter of Christmas gifts, the government clerks were interested. Every employee received a gift, usually a Congress penknife. Later, when gold pens were introduced they were added.
These came through the chief clerks. Many of them were remembered by their subordinates. For the week there was felt the influence of Christmas and the interchange of compliments was often accentuated by gifts to friends. Though there was no cessation of the departmental work save on Christmas day much of the week, when the condition of the work would warrant, was used as holiday, the clerks consulting each other as to their turns.
Schools Made Holiday
Santa Claus festivals, in which the Christmas tree is used, were few in number outside of private residents. These had not then been arranged for the Sunday schools, but instead on the regular Sunday session in Christmas week were gifts privately passed from one to another.
It was in the 50's when such festivals were engaged in by Sunday schools, a few at first; but soon the custom was well nigh general. A small tree with ornaments and table laden with gift books on the platform sufficed in the beginning as the feature in a program of singing and recitation.
Soon, however, these became the feature of the year and were elaborate as well as entertaining. The tree became gigantic, some schools using two, and on the stage were representations of room with wide fireplace, chimney etc., as accessories of the visit of Santa Claus and the distribution of gifts. Few Sunday schools in late years have missed such a celebration with old Kriss Kringle as the star actor. And that old and young enjoy such occasions none will deny.
At one time there was chosen for the part of the saint an official of the church whose rules prohibited dancing. This old gentleman was well fitted for the part, being of a rotund figure and of a jovial disposition.
At the appointed time he emerged from the chimney to the delight of the children, whose voices drowned the piano from which a young lady was extracting a march.
The old gentleman before entering the church had been fond of dancing, and this being known to the pianist she mischievously struck a lively jig tune. The effect was magical and in a moment the audience was witnessing such a specimen of jig dancing as is seldom seen on the stage.
There is no knowing what would have been the result had the jig tune continued. When the music ceased Old Kriss required a rest before continuing his part. The affair was fully enjoyed by the majority of the audience, but the more staid members frowned upon it and for some time did not believe the excuse he offered that he couldn't help it.
Streets Attracted Youth
But when the weather was not extra severe it was in the street that the boys would be found. In fact as tempting as were the tables, compulsion was often required to fill the chairs. Then parents expected every member of their families to partake of the Christmas dinner at home.
There were other attractive spots and by the dinner hour the young people often had become so gorged with sweet stuff that dinner was not thought of. And if along the river shore in the canal and on the streams and the many ponds there was good skating, many absentees from the family fireside were there enjoying themselves, for it was not always such sport could be had.
When there was good sleighing it was popular, and while on Pennsylvania avenue and other streets could be seen many fine turnout with horsepower, the youngsters with bobsleds, mostly homemade, were making merry.
Of toys there was the doll baby, a crude affair beside the costly ones of the present, but few being jointed and most of them were homemade. Painted heads were bought and at home attached to bodies and dressed. Swiss and German make were the most of them. Noah's arks with the animal figures, sets of soldiers in wood and metal, and, in fact, but a few other toys were there.
Figures on a bellows by which a sound was made and on a box whence the figure was made to turn were the acme of the mechanical toy with that of the monkey on a stick. From time to time whistles, rattles and small tin toys appeared as additions to others which were mostly of foreign make; and these were made by native tinners.
On one occasion a barber conceived the idea of making a figure turn somersaults by a combination with strings in a wooden frame. It caught the junior public and furnished him and associates constant employment that season.
Device That Was Popular
The dealer, seeing that he had a good thing, kept the name of the maker a secret, and until the holidays were past was kept busy in supplying boys who came from every section of the District.
There was but one store in the District devoted entirely to the sale of toys. This was conducted by Frank Colclazer, a popular militia man and fireman, on the north side of Louisiana avenue east of 7th street. This, as the holidays approached, was stocked to the limit, but by private sale and auction normal conditions were reached.
These auctions were almost as much appreciated as Christmas itself. The boys joined in the bidding, and the criers vied with each other in keeping the good humor.
Such stores known as a variety were in the winter months toy shops. George Savage, the most zealous local advocate of total abstinence, kept a hardware variety store on the avenue west of 9th street. Here the trade included the popular half-a-dollar pistol referred to above and toy cannon which every boy coveted, hobby horses, wheelbarrows and other large toys.
George Norbeck, confectioner, exercised his art in candy toys, candy dolls, baskets, canes, etc., on the avenue further west, and also at this season carried a large stock of toys in wood and metal. J. Aigler, D street between 11th and 12th streets; Paul Kinchey, south side of the avenue near 10th street; Joseph Beardsley, north side of the avenue west of 12th street and Harry Kuhl, nearby; John Miller, who preceded the Eckharts at 9th and F streets, and other confectioners engaged in the toy trade extensively.
John Rickey's fancy store on 9th street south of D street, an emporium for laces, notions, etc., became a favorite toy establishment. Mrs. Aller's varieties, on 7th street above 11th street were augmented by a large line of toys. Henry Funk, on I street between 20th and 21st streets, opposite the West market, was the attraction for the first ward young people.
The book and periodical dealers had not much to offer juveniles, but the few toys, books, primers, etc., took well. William Adam, on the avenue between 3d and 4-1/2 streets; G. Brooke & Co., corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 15th street, and E.K. Lundy, at the avenue and 12th street, were engaged in this trade. Subsequently Col. Joe Shillington located at 4-1/2 street and the avenue and paid much attention to the juvenile trade.
Fancy goods formed part of the stock of piano and music stores at this season. William Fischer, then between the present sites of the Raleigh and Star office, and R.I. Davis & Co., on the south side of the avenue between 10th and 11th streets, had suitable gifts of musical instruments, books and toys, those of the mechanical class usually first appearing in such stores.
The places of amusement gave performances on the afternoon and evening of the day, as well as during the week, and they were largely attended by the young people.
Many Christmas parties were given during the week. In some houses the Christmas trees were elaborate and a few of them attracted many visitors for days.