Christmas Memories Both Bad and Good, Naughty and Nice

History and Landscape
Published December 24, 1998

Christmas Memories Both Bad and Good, Naughty and Nice

| Published December 24, 1998

Women workers at Westinghouse in Newark paused during their Christmas party at the factory in 1936. The Newark Public Library

Newark’s Christmases past have tended to be happy times filled with warmth, celebration and love.

From the commercial point of selling things, Christmas is over. But religious custom—Twelfth Night—keeps us in the Christmas spirit for 12 days, into early January. Over the years, we have viewed Christmas through the eyes of Puritans and Victorians, during periods of war, peace, depression, progress and prosperity as well as from the standpoint of a once-industrial metropolis that is now a service city economy. Today, let’s look at Christmas in some of those memorable years—early Christmases in Newark.

Some of the earliest Christmas celebrations were restrained by the Puritan aversion to celebrating December 25. In fact, there was hardly any acknowledgment of the event at all, for fear that the English cavalier spirit of one holiday would re-emerge. This sentiment was almost universally held by most of New Jersey’s moderate Scotch Presbyterians and the even more conservative Quakers, who together made up the bulk of New Jersey’s population at that time. We owe it to the early Dutch settlements in Bergen County and later the influx of both the Germans and the Irish in the 1830s for helping make Christmas 'modern.' Eventually, concerts by singing societies, the exchange of gifts, and the decoration of Christmas trees came to be part of our Christmas-time culture. Miriam Studley, a long-time and well-respected Newark historian, credits Newark’s Irish and Germans with introducing the first exchange of holiday presents at the old Newark Orphan Asylum. It was marked by the inclusion of trees and other rituals that set the tone of Christmas today. The Orphan Asylum remains today the administrative building of the New Jersey Institute of Technology on King Boulevard (High Street). Presents were also exchanged at Christmas fairs at the Newark Female Charitable Society, which remains in existence today as the Newark Day Center. At that time exchanged gifts included home-made embroidered slippers, pocketbooks, religious mementos, aprons, dolls, bookmarks, tea cakes and preserves. Early Christmas was also marked by holiday concerts of sacred music by the Handel and Haydn Society under the leadership of Old First Church’s organist Amos Holbrook. Turkey shoots among youths also became part of the holiday pursuits. As Studley noted, by the 1830s, 'gone forever were the old Puritan views against merriment at Christmas.'

Christmas 1864

Christmas week 1864 saw Newarkers reading the Newark Daily Advertiser for news of the fighting at Nashville, Tenn., and waiting for reports of the Union Army from the headquarters of Gen. George Thomas. Unlike today’s newspapers, the papers of the time devoted their front pages largely to advertisements. On them, one was encouraged to purchase linen handkerchiefs, Turkish scarves, diamond stick pins, chiming clocks, furniture and clothing of all kinds. Sound familiar? Well, this all happened in the Broad Street stores whose names are now lost to everyday memory, relegated to remembrances only in old newspapers, or from antique Newark city directories. Names once commonly known included Bassell’s, the Temple of Fashion and Kimball’s. Christmas Day itself was very cold with the temperature only five degrees above zero. Most activities, except for two lads skating on the Branch Brook, were held inside where it was warm. At Trinity Church, the rupture of a steam heat pipe nearly resulted in a panic until the 'smoke' was identified as only steam. At Roseville Presbyterian Chapel, Santa Claus appeared to present a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost to the church library, other books to Sabbath School scholars, and toys and games to the very young. St. Luke’s Methodist Sunday School class was equally happy with the arrival of Santa and his accompanying gifts. The Episcopal and Roman churches were decorated according to custom with evergreens, wreaths, and candles. Tickets were sold for midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A variety of public entertainment for Christmas, including acts by a ventriloquist and magician, took place at Library Hall. A Christmas exhibition and concert was presented at Fenner’s, and several fairs took place throughout town. All in all, Christmas was treated as a much-revered and celebrated holiday in spite of the Civil War.

Christmas 1916

In 1916, Christmas accounts filled in the local newspapers even though the country was becoming deeply involved in the European conflict. Headlines in the Newark Star-Eagle shared space with local, national and international news events and presented information about the holiday season. Events of the greatest magnitude that occurred December 24, 1916, were the accidental death of a mother of four, the demise of a Central Railroad messenger, and the appointment of a press secretary to New Jersey’s recently elected U.S. senator. War news centered around a possible German threat to extend submarine warfare and the rumors of the possible closing of neutral sea lanes to the Mediterranean. The front-page Christmas story was about the Newark post office’s heavy mailings and increased stamp sales. An unusual full-page advertisement for Bamberger’s took the form of an animated article in which a clock assumed the personality of a human. The opening line read: 'I am the Bamberger clock. High above the heads of the multitude, I am a silent witness to the purchase of thousands of Christmas gifts.' Included in the personification of the clock were lines such as 'Seven great floors all but groan beneath the weight of merchandise,' and 'Up to the last hour at six tomorrow, the entire organization awaits smilingly and patiently the coming of the shopper, who, through some inconvenience, has been delayed in some of her (his) Christmas purchasing. But at six, I tick the season’s close, and Christmas shopping ends at Bamberger’s.' The local press also included all sorts of recipes for Christmas treats, including an article entitled 'Christmas cakes of various lands no strangers in American homes.' Included were instructions about how to make lebkuchen, petits fours, marzipan Francaise, pfeffernusse, and English fruit cake. These savories called for endless amounts of honey, cocoa, eggs, ground cloves, cinnamon, raisins, almonds, powered sugar, butter, milk, pastry of all kinds, molasses and nutmeg. Indeed, the list was long and rich enough to make everybody’s mouth water. But most important, the spirit of Christmas was present with 'a rampant giving to the poor,' while many agencies were alerted to help the less fortunate. Across the city and out into the suburbs, streets were decorated, fireplaces warmed the visitor, and a quiet spirit seemed to warm the land.

Christmas 1929

Christmas in 1929 was tempered by the Great Depression that had spread to every corner of the land. On the international scene, the Pope defended his activities against the fascists at Vatican City. In Washington, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover were preparing for a state visit to Washington by Mexican President and Mrs. Ortiz Rubio. The Mexican first family was hosted at the White House, the Pan American Union, and the Mexican Embassy in the District of Columbia, and at a glittering dinner in Annapolis, Md. In Belgium, a young Italian was arrested in a murder plot against the Belgian royal family. An attempted bombing of the royal train averted an effort to sabotage the marriage of Princess Marie Jose of Belgium to Crown Prince Humber of Italy, and a major air disaster had just occurred over the Bering Straits with the loss of three men sent on a rescue mission. In Englewood, plans were made for a reception of Dwight W. Morrow and his family, and in Jersey City a young couple’s car plunged mysteriously into the icy Hackensack River, killing the driver and badly injuring his passenger. The same front page carried the news that the Newark City Council owed Public Service Coordinated Transport $50,000 for police and firemen’s bus and trolley fares. At one time, the 2,000 combined forces rode free, but the city eventually was obligated to pay for the services rendered. Despite the hard times and the Great Depression, 1929 also saw the magic of electric lighting in windows and on the trees of many homes for the first time ever. According to one report, 'In and about Newark the magic of colored lights is being wrought by electricians with thrilling effect. If tonight is clear, the streets will be crowded with sightseers and the residential sections of the neighborhood towns (as well as Newark) will be a never-ending procession of cars.' In other words, colored lights, inside and outside, were adding a new dimension to holiday happiness in the gloomy financial world of the Great Depression.

Christmas 1943

The mood of Christmas 1943 was darkened by World War II. The headlines in the Newark Evening News referred to 3,000 Allied warplanes that raided Nazi-held France as being 'the largest collection of American Flying Fortresses and Liberators ever assembled on one mission.' A 'great (air) Armada thundered virtually unopposed across the channel into the Pas De Calais Department of France, 25 miles from England. A triumphant squadron included Marauders, Bostons, Mitchells and Typhoons. Guarded by a dense fighter escort, they left the special military installation in the target area a mass of twisted, smoking ruins.' On the other side of the world, in the Pacific, bombers of the Seventh Army Air Force struck three blows at the enemy-held Marshall Islands as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz announced the 'shooting down of three Japanese planes and the damaging of two ships.' In London, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt announced that Sir Henry Maitland Wilson had been named supreme commander of the Mediterranean theater to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower.' In central Europe 'Marshal Josif (Tito) Brozowick’s Yugoslav partisans smashed into an estimated 18 German divisions to recapture three towns. Closer to home, the editorial page of the News hoped for a personal reuniting of families 'born of longing for the presence of a loved one who had been torn away by war…' At RCA, a giant Christmas party was held over the telephone, which connected 30,000 employees, company president David Sarnoff presided. “A dramatic highlight of our party, ' the papers reported, 'one which will symbolize Christmas 1943, will be a personal telephone conversation between an RCA worker father and his son who can’t be home for Christmas because he is convalescing in a naval hospital from a serious war wound.' Holiday greetings from the Community Manpower Mobilization Committee took the form of a letter from a war mother wishing to hear her boy shouting 'Merry Christmas, Mom! Racing down the stairs…Talking for hours on our phone…Slamming the door behind him…Meeting his girl…That’s the gift I want next Christmas. My boy home!' The newspaper article suggested: 'So down with leisure! Up With Production! In `44 give them more. Let’s work. Not Wait. Let’s work. Not dream of Victory. Work! Work so hard that our boys may be home again. Soon. Victorious. Safe!' If these words inspired you, you could sign up for a war job at 986 South Orange Ave., 193 Ferry St., or 562 Clinton Ave. But if you wanted to relax at the movies there was still time to take in a show at the Paramount or the Adams. 'Riding High' and 'No Time for Love' were showing, starring Dorothy Lamour in Technicolor at the Paramount. Over at the Adams, Woody Herman and his orchestra was appearing with an all-star revue featuring Marion Daniels and Paul Winchell. The movie was billed as 'screamingly funny,' with the East Side Kids appearing in 'Mr. Muggs Steps Out.' A Christmas-tide image of Newark in The Star-Ledger was one of a determinedly successfully hard-working community dedicated to the war effort, for this was the city’s third war-time holiday. Newark was not reeling from the shock of a devastated Pearl Harbor. Instead, its war-production plants were functioning efficiently, many residents were basking in a new economic prosperity, some servicemen and servicewomen were coming home on Christmas furloughs, and Christmas carolers were appearing at Board and Market streets for the first time since the war began.