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CHRISTMAS in BELMONT 1937-1960

Edition of December 10, 2008

The earliest memories that have come back to me are cutting up colored paper and with white paste making rings to hang on the tree at the front of the living room at 24 Edward Street.  I believe it was a project my sister, Harriet  initiated.

Whatever year a Gene Autry twin holstered, pearl handled cap gun set came out, I got one. To me it had  "leather" holsters which turned out to be very thin cowhide but for a few months I was able to strut around with a pistol on each hip. The set lasted at least until one July because I can recall firing many rolls of caps, those little red strips with lumps of powder on them that went bang.  I dropped the pistols enough so "towards the end" the "pearl handles" (flimsy white plastic) were chipped off.  53 or so years later my son Benjamin, a few years out of law school,  took a deposition from the real Gene Autry in regard to Anaheim Stadium and his Angels ball club.

Larry Maletta recalls having a Roy Rogers holster and cap gun for  one Christmas.  Another Christmas it was an RCMP uniform, red coat, blue pants with  yellow strip on the sides. Pointed hat, brown leggings and a cap pistol. He bought the red paper covered rolls of caps for  his guns at
 a variety store on the corner of  Maple St and Belmont or at Woolworth's in Cushing Square.  I'm assuming either Johns or the store next to his on Waverly at Beech sold caps.

Larry wrote: "One snowy year a few  days before Christmas Joe Faulkner, Bill O'Sullivan and I walked from my home at 709 Belmont Street
to Cushing Square to the 5 and 10. I bought a 18 inch church steeple candle for fifty cents. That candle must have  lasted for about 10 Christmas Eves. By the way our legs were frozen with ice up to above our knees. We lived in a stucco house on the corner  of Alma ave. My Dad had the front porch enclosed where every Christmas we would build a manger. We would go to Walden Pond to find moss. Using orange or grape crates for hills. Sand, was used for paths, a small mirror for ponds and fir branches for trees. The manger itself and its figurines came from Italy. The manger was made to look like it was a cave on the side of a hill. Of course the best part were the lights. Many of the neighbors showed up and took pictures. My folks would serve home made wine, cheese and fruit. Alma Ave. was the coasting hill. The DPW would put  a wooden barrier on the top warning people. I think I may have had the fastest Flexible Flyer. My older brother John, put heated wax on the runners.  Unfortunately one day sliding down on my stomach I went under a parked car. I  hit my head on the rear axle.  Luck for me I had my head down. Bill O'Sullivan ran to my house
telling my mom I was dead. Just a lot of blood  and in a daze, had several days home from school.  Life seemed  simpler in those years."

Another toy gift weapon was an archery set. The "arrows"' were red wood dowels which although far from light were easily warped. They were grooved at one end  to fit the "bowstring".  I think it came with rubber tips for the "arrows" but I fear I may have whittled a point on the blunt end. I think some flimsy target got tattered and I know I started looking around the yard at things to shoot at. A "not too smart shot" I can recall was at a neighbor girl, Terry Walsh  riding a new bicycle. Not thinking  I aimed low and the "arrow'"took out some front wheel spokes. Fortunately that was the end of my rampant "indian" act.

I am guessing it was Christmas 1937 that we got the Lionel train set. I can recall it set up in the living room and my father and I racing the electromotive style streamliner engine and passenger cars around the track and laughing when it went off on a curve. My brother's resentment of such  use of what he felt was "basically" his train lasted long enough for him to use it as a point of humour for many years.  We added some accessories, a crossing that was supposed to lower a gate when the train came around. We added enough track to require another power supply. I can recall them warming up, getting too hot and the screw type brass connections for the wires. Some finger dexterity was required.

I clearly recall being bewildered that despite having new toys I was obliged to visit relatives. However, I clearly exhibited my priorities, an early rejection of hypocrisy.  When we were leaving grandmother's house on Tanager Street, Arlington, I would "brighten up" for the first time of our visit and wave joyfully from our 1937 Plymouth backseat.

One Christmas my brother and I developed a time consuming game of using boxes from Christmas gifts as "boats" and pushing them along the hardwood floor from the living room into the sun parlor. The best boxes were stiff white ones about the size for clothing items and maybe a Schraft's candy box, the gold colored ones with stiff high sides for two layers of chocolate. We used blocks to make two deckers, maybe with a third level on some. I know  we used mini sandbags and our toy soldiers for ballast and to add "realism". The most fun was doing this after dark with small candles and flashlights on the "boats".  I assume the candles got banned.

Our mother must have been delighted at this quiet game since another one about that time was rolling glass marbles around on large metal serving trays, then bouncing them down the stairway on the bare wood beside  the carpeting. Must have been a great relief for her when weather cleared and "they could go out".

Another past-time was flying balsa airplanes off the sunporch roof. They had a balsa wood stick for a fuselage and thin balsa sheet for wings and tail assembly. You had to be careful assembling them or the wood would split. I know we walked to Cushing Square and bought the better models at a hobby shop. The "five and dime" models were basic introductary items. There were metal clips on some to weight the nose. I can recall attempting better flights with various weightings, bending wings, using elastics to increase "airframe rigidity", etc.  It was many years before I  learned what was really involved by working on the Apollo program for North American Aviation in the 1960's.

One of the funniest early tales of family gifts was my brother and I going to Cushing square several times looking before he settled on a standard cooking pan for our mother. He wrapped it up in a manner not hiding it's identity and put it under the tree. We laughed for many years over that. I can recall him asking the clerk questions. We were never  hasty with buying decisions. Once we got "asked to leave" that "5 and 10" since we had spent so much time picking out absolutely perfect Tootsie toy cars on the floor. They had to roll straight for several feet, no wobbly wheels, perfect paint jobs, etc. The prize I found once was a 1939 Buick phaeton.  We kept our collections in 8 by 11 cardboard boxes, wrapped in tissue paper. We were so attached to the toys, our mother became worried about our growing up and gave the collections to the Butler kids on Waverley Street. About then we moved to the "swamp" and fortunately for our "growing up" got with  the neighborhood bunch and into playing sports.

Since our aunt worked on Milk Street, Boston she brought home most of the gifts and tried to hide them in closets. Only our sister didn't peek. It was well known my brother knew absolutely every item and it's approximate cost before anyone opened a gift. I suspect he picked over the trash for receipts. He had a "gotta know" syndrome worse than I did.

He and I still recall the morning before 1941 we got up and found nothing under the tree. Mother and aunt had been at a neighborhood party, had a highball or two good time and didn't put the stuff out and were sleeping late. I think after that we changed to exchanging gifts on Christmas eve with maybe some surprises from Santa under the tree in the morning.  Who can forget the handkerchiefs and ties one would receive from relatives?  After I was old enough to go into Boston alone I learned how to exchange some nice gifts which were appreciated but too upscale for me. I had more basic  priorities.

The live tree was usually at the front of living room but I think it kept longer when we put it on the sunporch away from hot water radiators.  I still have some strings of the lights and ornaments. The use of tinsel was much higher in those days. I can recall seeing trees still decked with it set out for trash pickup.

I can still envision the crestfallen look on my brother's face when we opened our new plaid shirts.  The basic color of his was yellow, mine the traditional red and black. I'm not sure he said anything but I couldn't stand seeing his woebegon expression all day so I exchanged shirts with him.

I don't recall kids coming to the door as quickly to ask "what did you get?" as they did in sunny California for my kids. There being more weather to deal with in the east.

I'm sure "Johnny" McGreenery and Brad Atwood were the first to come by. I recall being allowed with Johnny with warnings  to be careful to operate the very elaborate train layout his father and older brother had set up in their attic on Common Street.  It was so large with switches, lights and several engines the trains went out of sight under the eaves. Why, it even had a rail car which would dump it's load of "poles".

After we moved to Alexander Avenue in April 1942 I recall requesting cash in lieu of gifts and "Dickie" Bolles and I would go into Boston for post Christmas markdowns.  Soon we added snow shoveling money to our stash and would be on the bus early to  hunt for bargains.  For many years I could envision more clearly than now the second floor of a major department store when they were taking down the Christmas toys layout, a model RR set, etc. Dick Bolles was with me and I believe he bought something which a day later I decided I also wanted and went back but they were all gone. Dick and I hovered over toys in I think it was a Kresges on the second floor long enough to worry a saleslady. I think she asked us to move along. We were examining toys for the very best one or considering "do we really want this".

Who could forget Raymond's department store "Uncle Eph sez" ads?  I recall being called by a friend, maybe one of the Regan twins that Raymond's had a big ad for CCM hockey gear. I fled into Boston and was in heaven. I can still envision the first floor, up some steps with a large display of gloves and pads laid out on waist high flat bin counters. I recall spending some time picking out a good stick from the rack and feeling quite macho on the subway and bus to Belmont with my gear.   I had to be one of the happiest kids on the ponds after that. I oiled the gloves and took good care of things to the point of worrying a bit too much about them rather than what I was not doing in the pickup games.  The gloves had bamboo inserts for the backs of the hands. I restitched them and retained them until they were a "mark of distinction"  playing "huff and puff" in the late '60's in Southern California. I sold them along with all used gear, there being high demand for such in Southern California up into the '80's.

Another memorable Boston shopping experience was "open field running practice" in the bargain basements, notably Filene's. As I recall we had to fend off aggressive lady shoppers to get to the mens and boys clothing.

In later years our Gartland relatives tipped me off to see a Mr. Orenberg, I believe his name was, in Filene's basement.  Other bargain tips came to us via my aunt "Phine" or Mort Robinson's mother or his aunt Esther Callahan since all three worked close to the Boston center shopping district. We had some quality sports jackets, slacks, raincoats, etc., via this channel.  Some all time buys were a Harris tweed sport coat I got after getting out of the Army and a quality raincoat, later a distinctive, rare sight in Southern California.

Every year we dreaded not having a white Christmas. However by our teen years that dread diminished if there was good outdoor ice.

Normally we made up a winter scene in our fireplace with a mirror for the pond, figurine skaters, snow skiers on "the slopes", a soft blanket of cotton draped over bunched up newspapers. I added small lights to store bought houses, later adding some I made from model railroad kits.

A story my brother has relished telling his friends was he and I strolling along the railroad tracks circa 1943 picking up fresh coal fallen from the steam locomotives. We lugged it  home in potato straw sacks. Our need was to conserve on heating oil, then in short supply. We had hung heavy drapes on three entrances to our living room and were using the fireplace. Those small amounts of black anthracite coal along with wood provided some excellent heat.

Scenes Around Town

The one Christmas tree lot I recall cleary was that of  "Gutsy" Garrity next to the gas station at  Leonard and Common by the underpass. I know we bought some trees there.

I doubt there was an empty lot in the town that did not get discarded trees. When things dried out they were a favorite to burn, hopefully without annoying the fire department. We also used some to screen our "forts" in snow banks or to make "forts" as Mark Olken reports . 

There were always carol singing groups either 'touring' the town's streets or appearing in halls.  Church services, of course were a major event.  We had many quips about our Catholic midnight Masses.  (Anecdote: a priest friend here in the Ozarks told me every year he received calla "what time is the midnight Mass?").

There was chaotic parking in the iced up lot behind the Leonard Street stores after a snowstorm that wasn't readily cleared. We called it the "skid at your own risk challenge". There were also "chicken" competitions to get into the St. Joseph's church lot before that new Buick coming in the other direction.  More than one priest made a plea from the altar for "calmer" driving.  We walked nearly all the time to church, even from Alexander Avenue.

Another source of humour for us boys on the street was the clanging of broken tire chains up under and along the fenders of cars. This was particularly "enjoyable" with sparks if the vehicle was being driven quickly on bare pavement.  Another was the screeching of over revved motors, wheels spinning to the point of smoking tires attempting the wrong way to get out of some snow. Another  boy's vehicle cry of those days was "ground me a pound" delivered to "gear grinding" shifting by passing motorists.

There was hardly an automatic on the road till the 1940 or so Oldsmobile. Of course there had been some wayback,   the clutchless Metz, etc. (which incidentally was assembled on Soyen Street, Waltham. Soyen for Noyes spelled backwards. When I worked there in 1957 we could faintly see Metz on the railroad dock side wall of a Raytheon building.

At church we always saw the Regan twins, Comerfords, Conlons, Frizzells, Burns, Brines,  McGreenerys, Redmonds, Dailey's and our neighbor on Edward Street, Catherine Kingston among many others. All those boys were altar boys but we got out of it by my brother making up a story maligning to our mother the priest in charge of altar boys.  I can envision our hockey bags and sticks in the foyer at the early Masses.

Since my mother, Johnny McGreenery's mother and Alice Barnes who lived next to us on Alexander were soloists at St. Joseph's, I am deeply touched by Ave Maria, Allelujia, Gloria In Excelsio Deo aka Angels We Have Heard on High, O Holy Night and Adeste Fideles. Unfortunately I have no recordings of my mother's singing so I have recorded selections on tape by such as Leontyne Price and Roberta Peters from my LP records of Christmas music.

Barbara Dow Elwell's Christmas reminisces, sent to me by email in November 2002. The Dow's moved from 605 Pleasant to 5 Edward St in the mid '40's.

"My father always played Santa Claus for my sister, my brother and me.  He had a Santa Claus suit which looked very real to a five-year-old.  He was the assistant manager of the old Hotel Manger, right next to Boston Garden and always had to work on Christmas Eve.  But he would come all the way home, play Santa Claus, then go back to work.  One year he couldn't make it so Mr. Brown, our neighbor was commandeered to play the part.  That was the year my sister got wise and told our mother "That's Mr. Brown!!!"  Later she found my father's Santa suit in the attic and showed it to me because I insisted on believing in Santa.  My mother was furious at her.

Santa only brought our stocking presents.  There was a TANGERINE in the toe, and that was delicious.  One year there was an orange which was really disappointing.  There was candy and small toys, or maybe a small puzzle, but always  a book on the mantle for each of us.  My sister, the student, would read hers right away.  I never would. I'd play with my dolls.

I remember cap pistols, but I can't imagine my parents giving one to me.  Maybe my brother got one.  I loved playing with one because I fancied myself a cowgirl.  I was born in Oklahoma, but my parents moved back East when I was 1.5 years old.

The Christmas tree was decorated but then covered with a sheet until Christmas day.  We were not to be caught peeking under the sheet.

There was never a special Christmas service at our church - because Christmas was thought to be really every day, but when Christmas occured on Sunday, we had to go to church first (we could have our stockings) then have dinner, then we could have our presents.  This must have been to teach us to have patience.  Boy , it was difficult, but we managed to do it somehow.  I should look up old calendars to see on which day the 25th fell in which years.  When we were older, 7th grade or so, we went to my grandmother's and aunt's house in Needham.  My parents didn't have a car so we went on the bus.  (When we bought our summer cottage in Marblehead, it was too difficult to get there lugging huge amounts of stuff on the train, so after only one year my father bought a car.  It was during the War, because I remember the Coast Guard planes flying over our cottage on their patrols.)  We then were able to drive to Needham.  Much better."
 

Any help is appreciated on stirring up more memories. I have a lot of vague, brief images come to me while listening to my Christmas tapes while following the lyrics, some of which are listed here;

"White Christmas" , Irving Berlin, 1942, increasing the aura of snow for Christmas.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.
 

"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" from the film Meet Me In St. Louis, Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane 1943

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
gather near to us once more.

Through the years we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
 

"I'll Be Home For Christmas", Kim Gannon, Walter Kent (c) 1943

I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
and presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
 

"Let It Snow!", Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne (c) 1945

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

It doesn't show signs of stopping,
And I brought some corn for popping;
The lights are turned way down low,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

When we finally say good night,
How I'll hate going out in the storm;
But if you really hold me tight,
All the way home I'll be warm.

The fire is slowly dying,
And, my dear, we're still good-bye-ing,
But as long as you love me so.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

"The Christmas Song", Mel Torme (c) 1946

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey
and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa's on his way
He's loaded lots of toys
and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer
really know how to fly.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it's been said
many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.
 

"Here Comes Santa Claus", Gene Autry, Oakley Haldeman (c) 1947

Here comes Santa Claus!
Here comes Santa Claus!
Right down Santa Claus Lane!
Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer
are pulling on the reins.
Bells are ringing, children singing;
All is merry and bright.
Hang your stockings and say your prayers,
'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

Here comes Santa Claus!
Here comes Santa Claus!
Right down Santa Claus Lane!
He's got a bag that is filled with toys
for the boys and girls again.
Hear those sleigh bells jingle jangle,
What a beautiful sight.
Jump in bed, cover up your head,
'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight
 

"Sleigh Ride", Mitchell Parish, Leroy Anderson 1948

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling,
ring ting tingling too
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you,
Outside the snow is falling
and friends are calling "Yoo hoo,"
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you.

Giddy yap, giddy yap, giddy yap,
let's go, Let's look at the show,
We're riding in a wonderland of snow.
Giddy yap, giddy yap, giddy yap,
it's grand, Just holding your hand,
We're gliding along with a song
of a wintry fairy land.

Our cheeks are nice and rosy
and comfy cozy are we
We're snuggled up together
like two birds of a feather would be
Let's take that road before us
and sing a chorus or two
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you.

There's a birthday party
at the home of Farmer Gray
It'll be the perfect ending a perfect day
We'll be singing the songs
we love to sing without a single stop,
At the fireplace while we watch
the chestnuts pop. Pop! pop! pop!

There's a happy feeling
nothing in the world can buy,
When they pass around the chocolate
and the pumpkin pie
It'll nearly be like a picture print
by Currier and Ives
These wonderful things are the things
we remember all through our lives!

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling,
ring ting tingling too
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you,
Outside the snow is falling
and friends are calling "Yoo hoo,"
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you.

Giddy yap, giddy yap, giddy yap,
let's go, Let's look at the show,
We're riding in a wonderland of snow.
Giddy yap, giddy yap, giddy yap,
it's grand, Just holding your hand,
We're gliding along with a song
of a wintry fairy land

Our cheeks are nice and rosy
and comfy cozy are we
We're snuggled up together
like two birds of a feather would be
Let's take that road before us
and sing a chorus or two
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you.

"Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer", Johnny Marks (c) 1949

You know Dasher and Dancer
And Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
(reindeer)
Had a very shiny nose
(like a light bulb)
And if you ever saw it
(saw it)
You would even say it glows
(like a flash light)
All of the other reindeer
(reindeer)
Used to laugh and call him names
(like Pinochio)
They never let poor Rudolph
(Rudolph)
Play in any reindeer games
(like Monopoly)

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
(Ho Ho Ho)
Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?
Then all the reindeer loved him
(loved him)
And they shouted out with glee
(yippee)
"Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
(reindeer)
You'll go down in history!"
(like Columbus)
 


 

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