The images of Christmas: children scrambling under the tree for presents, the smells of evergreens and good food baking in the oven, and the twinkle of holiday displays in department store windows, are as varied as the snowflakes many children pray for on Christmas Eve. For some native Washingtonians, this Christmas will be a time to reflect on the traditions of Christmases past. We've asked some of them to share those memories as a special gift from The District Weekly.
Christmas was a very special time of year for me as a child in the District because it meant that my father, Dr. Charles R. Drew, would extricate himself from his surgical and teaching duties at Freedmen's Hospital and spend some precious time with his family. He really enjoyed the Christmas season, putting toys together with great enthusiasm and making sure each one of us had what we wanted. He made sure that cookies, cake and milk were left for Santa Claus. He threw himself into Christmas with the same verve and intensity with which he threw himself into everything that he did, making sure that Christmas would be a perfect time.
On Christmas Eve, my sisters Bebe and Sylvia, and my brother Charlie and I would pile into my father's old Ford and head downtown to look at the Christmas windows at Woodward and Lothrop's. My marvelous mother, Lenore Robbins Drew, would be left at home to prepare the Christmas dinner and wrap the gifts. Those scenes brought Christmas alive for us.
From a child's point of view, it was so exciting! The trolleys were running on F and G streets NW at that time and I remember riding along the tracks craning to see the decorated windows while we looked anxiously for a parking space. We also went to the Ellipse to see the grandly lit Christmas tree in front of the White House. The sight of it was breathtaking. It was so tall and had so many lights and decorations. We quickly forgot about our cold noses and hands. We then would all pile back into the car and head for one of those Christmas tree lots that seemed to spring up magically all over town.
We spent an infinite amount of time choosing a tree because my father was very definite about what he wanted. He always approached an event in a very scientific manner so there was a lengthy process of comparing and measuring so we would get "the perfect tree." When we got home to College Street on the campus of Howard University, I can recall the smell of the pine all over the basement as my father sawed off the bottom of the tree and placed it in a bucket of water to be placed upstairs on the first floor. The whole family then participated in the decoration of the tree. Sometimes the four children placed decorations on the tree that fell or were crooked. My father never said anything but went lovingly behind us making the necessary adjustments.
Christmas morning was always a time of great excitement and competition because each one of us gathered our gifts into a corner and then tried to decide if he or she had gotten more or less than the other. If Bebe got a bride doll and I got a bridesmaid doll there was always some disconcerted mumbling about not getting things equally. We always got many things and it was always a very full and happy time.
Traditionally, we visited family during the Christmas season, which was also great fun. The home of my father's sister, Nora Drew Gregory, was one stop. "Noni" still lives in the same home in Southeast where she has been for 40 years. Grandmother Drew lived in Arlington and always had eggnog and good food and presents ready for us when we arrived. She lived with the family of father's brother, Joseph Drew, who taught at Cardoza High School for many years.
Washington at that time in the late '40s was quite different than it is today. Blacks shopped at the stores downtown, but were not permitted to use the public facilities.
There were very few places in this city outside of the black neighborhoods where we could sit down and eat. The art galleries were an exception. My father and mother had a great fondness for art and so we frequently went to the galleries and ate while perusing magnificent works. It was not until 1950 that Thompson's Restaurant was integrated. It was then on E Street NW, opposite the District Building.
The mode of transportation in old Washington was different. Trolleys clanged along the downtown pathways and fanned out into the various neighborhoods. At that time, Freedmen's Hospital was adjacent to Griffiths Stadium. Freedmen's is now Howard University Hospital and Griffiths Stadium no longer exists. The face of Howard University, where I spent my childhood, has changed and given way to an expanded student body, new schools and colleges and many new buildings -- the School of Human Ecology, the Schools of Engineering and Architecture and the Dunbarton Campus. On College Street, we lived next door to Dr. James Nabrit and Dr. Eric E. Williams. (As an adult, I remember watching the steel ball destroy those homes to make way for a new dormitory.) The old Mott School, which I attended as an elementary school student, is now closed. Banneker Junior High School, which I attended, is now an academic high school. Miner Teachers College is no longer Miner Teachers College but is now part of the University of the District of Columbia.
The Washington that I knew as a child has given way to a much more progressive, cosmopolitan city -- not without its problems. I still visit the windows of Woodward and Lothrop, often with my teen-aged sons, Ernie and Pete, if I can corral them. I hope Christmas for them is as happy and full as it was for me.