The images of Christmas: children scrambling under the tree forpresents, 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 Chistmas 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 meant two things to me as a childgetting presents and giving presents. We children received them and our parents (and teachers) saw that we gave them. Many were things we had made in art, carpentry or woodcarving classes at Sidwell Friends School. By the time we had the habit of giving, we saw the point of it. Besides giving in the family, we were reminded of those in need outside -- physically handicapped or through some other loss -- through books like Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim were tear-jerkers for me then as they are now.
Our church, St. John's on Lafayette Square, ran an orphanage and as I remember it the orphanage children came to our church school's Christmas service and each of us received a good-sized box of tasty candy. Grabbing an extra box was discouraged, as someone might have to go without.
Simple ways, but they helped set our minds in the direction of giving and helping. Some of us grew self-righteous and insensitive to what was going on in hearts near us (I for one); that dimension has had to come later, through pain. Just the same, Christmas has been a heart-opener every year for me, the element of love that gives the needed interpretation and motivation for the Ten Commandments and other moral signposts.
I was always interested in government. We had heated debates in school in which right sometimes seemed a secondary objective. My father was a leading Department of Agriculture physiologist with a modestly substantial private income from his and his family's work and savings over the years, and mother was similarly fortunate. Because we felt neither rich nor poor, we thought we were better than most people. Our tradition of service was good, but not our conceit about it. We were unjust to the wealthy, whose imagination and drive were building the country, as well as their fortunes, and even harder on those with less than us who could suffer loss of self-respect and in other ways through our attitude.
Nowadays the country has a new chance, I believe. Black Americans have a common sense and magnanimity that is now freely available to the nation. The bluff of many of us had been called. We can go forward together.
Back to Christmas past and getting presents: One uncle used to give us each a $5 gold piece every year. I used to think this measly as I cashed it and spent the money. Oh, Uncle Jim, I wish I'd kept 'em!
We moved three times in Washington. First my brother and parents and I, aged 3, were at 1722 H Street NW, which is now a small store. Then when my twin sisters were born in 1917, we went to 1445 Rhode Island Ave., where father rented a four-story house with basement for $75 a month from a family connection. Later, it was $125. In 1926 he bought 1736 M St., not far from the Sumner School and across a small park and Rhode Island Avenue from St. Matthew's Cathedral. When mother died in 1958 it was the last private house on the block. We sold it and the site soon became a parking lot. Later an office building was built on this and adjoining lots.
My early Christmases were spent in Philadelphia where my two grandmothers lived. While mother's mother was alive and afterward, when our aunt lived in her house, we would spend the first part of Christmas with father's mother and then in the evening drive from downtown up Broad Street past hundreds of houses with their glass-enclosed porches alight with Christmas trees, to mother's old home. It was a house once owned by the artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who we were told had painted George Washington in his parlor there.
It was in Philadelphia that I got firm evidence of the identity of Santa Claus' agents in our family. On Christmas Eve, I heard sounds in the room where we had left our stockings. Investigating, I spied my elders in there doing something on the floor. The next day a handsome electric train set, ready to go, was there. We went out and soon met a friend of my uncle's. "I hear you got an electric train," he said. "How did you know?" I said. But I knew and didn't mind knowing that my suspicions of several years were accurate.
Later in Washington we used to decorate our tree in the stairwell of the M Street house and fill each other's stockings (Shh! Don't tell the children!). There were always "jokes," kept year after year, to sneak in -- a dribble glass, a flower that squirted, a plastic ice cube with a bug in it . . . We have some of them to this day. Afterward, we would go to the midnight service at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. As for the tree itself, my brother and I always tried to get the biggest our parents would stand for. It usually was placed in the stairwell and reached to the second floor. We hung a large light star from the banisters above it, about 15 feet above the floor. Decorating it was quite a feat, done by all. One sister sometimes played the piano -- carols and general music of a nonprofessional sort.
During my late student years there were quite a few big dances in the holiday season, in the handsome houses around Dupont Circle and other places. Though I took myself seriously on most matters, dances were not such occasions. I remember one ball where I put on my top charm for my young-looking hostess, thinking she was the debutante. This mistake was quickly and quietly corrected and I found myself outside. Another Washington hostess, Mrs. Wylie, had a handsome red-brick house on Thomas Circle and used to give a stunning party there every Christmas night. I went when invited, a little uneasy about a dance on a religious holiday, and enjoyed it.
My parents had five domestic helpers in the old days, friends we all loved and respected. One of them said my father was the only white man she knew who raised his hat to her on the street. All were part of our Christmas in a very real way, for they usually worked on it and then went home early. Why do I hesitate to call them servants when my own commitment is to be one -- including restoring, to the best of my ability, for what was given me and for the suffering and inconvenience I and my kind have caused over the centuries? Of one of the ladies who served us, her minister said at her funeral: "She loved everyone -- including those she worked for." That was generous and it meant a lot to me to hear it.
In 1940 I began a 27-year period as a full-time unpaid worker in the Moral Re-Armament program, worldwide champion of racial harmony. Here I came to believe that to be fully effective, world peace would have to be built by people who cared enough to become different in their own attitudes, starting at home and with the neighbors. To me that means Washington D.C.
My association with the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations started 12 years ago and gives a further dimension to Christmas for me. Last fall I heard of the battles in the early and middle years of the federation, and could only be filled with grateful wonder that I was chosen to serve as its president. I need all the help I can get to do my job.