Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Fifty Years Ago

“The familiar Christmas music beamed from our downtown tower expresses the wish that the spirit of the season may be shared by everyone.” Home Savings and Loan ad in Youngstown Vindicator, December 27, 1971.

In December of 1971, I was a senior at Chaney High School. I probably had worked my tail off on Christmas eve at the layaway at McKelvey’s, taking breaks to sample the spread of baked goods all the women in customer service and the cashiers had brought in. That night, I’m sure our family all piled into the car for candlelight services at our church followed by a drive around town to see the lights. Christmas Day was a rest before the big work day on the 26th as customers brought in returns and we tried to sell more than we gave credits or refunds for.

I looked at the Youngstown Vindicator for Christmas Eve of 1971. No paper was published on Christmas Day that year. Christmas eve weather that year was cloudy, breezy, with temperatures dropping to the low 30’s with snow flurries. Not too bad for Santa to make his deliveries.

Many churches were having special services Christmas eve and morning. St. John’s Byzantine Rite Catholic Church was featured in a photograph with notices about their midnight mass at 9:45 am Christmas Day mass. One other that caught my eye was Boardman United Methodist’s “Service of a Thousand Candles” at 8 and 11 pm. There was also an article about the tradition of Slovak and other Catholic parishes distributing oblatke to homes, unleavened wafers with holy scenes, blessed by the priest and eaten, often with honey, by families on Christmas eve. Fr. George Franko from Holy Name Church on the West Side was featured in the article. Local fire stations were accepting donations of good used toys up to ten days after Christmas for the Salvation Army.

In national news, the big stories were a Christmas cease fired by American and South Vietnamese troops over Christmas day, even while bombing went on. President Nixon ordered the release of former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa after five years of prison to join his ailing wife. On July 30, 1975, he disappeared from a suburban Detroit restaurant. His body has never been found. Locally, not all was “peace on earth, good will toward men.” Gary Bryner, President of UAW Local 1112 vigorously denied charges of shoddy work and sabotage at the Lordstown Assembly Plant.

Lindley Vickers was still writing columns for the Vindicator, in this case about nature observations at Little Beaver Creek. Youngstown State had just won its sixth straight basketball game under coach Dom Roselli, defeating Illinois Wesleyan 85-76. Boardman handed a previously undefeated Columbus South team an 80-60 loss. Disney had re-released Lady and the Tramp for the holidays. Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, “$” with Goldie Hawn, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever were also showing.

Throughout the paper on that day were large ads from many of the businesses in Youngstown sharing holiday greetings. In addition to the iconic Home Savings ad, there was a full page ad from McKelvey’s with holiday greetings in every language represented in the Valley and beautiful ads from Strouss,’ Hartzell, Rose, and Sons, Lustig’s, Butler Wick, Ohio Bell and A&P. All those names are gone. A number of restaurants also had holiday ads while the more enterprising already advertised New Year’s events. The Zanzibar had $20 couples packages!

Peanuts that day featured Snoopy and Woodstock knocking back mugs and celebrating Christmas atop Snoopy’s dog house with the two disheveled and Snoopy commiserating in the last frame, “Bleah!! Every time we have an office party, I drink too much root beer!” Then there is Dennis the Menace praying, “…an’ please tell Santa I got all the clothes I need.”

That’s a snapshot of Christmas in Youngstown fifty years ago. So many memories. For most of us, our family celebrations and our religious traditions, if we had them, are what we remember the most–the three “F’s”–faith, family, and food. Many of the events are in the past or forgotten, a number of the places of business are no more, but the memories we carry last, at least as long as memory does.

So I will close with wishes of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you who follow these articles. I appreciate you all so much and wish you all the blessings of the season.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Christmas Tree

Christmas treeWe were dog-sitting over Thanksgiving weekend and on some of my walks with the dog, I noticed the number of homes in my area that already had trees up. Some, I’m sure were artificial trees. Ours went up last night.

It wasn’t that way growing up at least as a young kid. Living in urban Youngstown, we didn’t do the Christmas tree farm thing, probably the best way to get a good, fresh-cut tree. There used to be a vacant lot on the corner of South Maryland and Mahoning Avenue that we would buy our trees from, which would mean we’d only need to take it a block to our house.

Usually dad would get the tree in early December to ensure getting a good tree before the selection was picked over. Since we had a detached garage, he would cut the bottom of the tree so it would take water and put the tree trunk into a bucket of water to keep it well-watered. Then, about a week before Christmas, he’d bring the tree in, after he had put up our outside lights. As I recall, this was usually the time, if the tree wasn’t quite right, when you’d hear about it. “That trunk is crooked”, “It’s leaning too far to the right”. Sometimes he’d end up securing the tree with a bit of twine attached to something solid.

Then he would put up all the lights. He had the old fashioned lights with bulbs and the first thing was getting those strings untangled, usually with a few choice expressions. He would really fuss with the lights, putting “reflectors” on each light so they looked like miniature stars. Then he would position ornaments, garlands, and tinsel (remember tinsel?) so that each light reflected just right off of these. His trees were works of art. When I was a young child I could just sit for hours following the trail of lights around the tree and staring at the various ornaments.

For a year or so my dad worked in Baltimore during the weeks and came home on the weekends. Because my dad’s time at home was limited, my mom asked me to buy the tree. So I took our old red wagon up to the tree lot and tried to remember all that mom taught me about buying trees. Look at the trunk and make sure it was straight, about 6 1/2 feet high, check the needles to see if they are green or turning brown, shake the tree and see if needles fall off. I spent a long time studying all the trees there until I found one I thought met all of these criteria. Bought and paid, I brought it home, cut a section of the bottom of the trunk so it would take water, and stored it in the garage in a bucket of water.

I held my breath when dad came home. He still was the one to decorate the tree and I waited to see what he thought. He hauled it into the house, walked all around it and positioned it, and finally said those words that made my Christmas: “You bought a good tree.” I felt like I grew up that day in my dad’s eyes. That Christmas tree smelled especially good!

In later years, they bought an artificial tree and later yet, to stored the tree with the lights on it. We never did the silver trees with the rotating light that reflected off the tree in different colors. That just seemed too glitzy. About the same time, in the late ’60’s my wife’s parents bought an artificial tree. In later life, we inherited that tree. It is still stored somewhere in our utility room–we haven’t had the heart to pitch it yet.

There is something about the wonder of a lit tree in a darkened room that makes me want to just sit and look. I come no where close to my dad’s tree decorating skills. Is it childhood memories or simply the mute, shining beauty of the tree? Whatever it is, I love those moments and Christmas memories.

What are your memories of buying and putting up Christmas trees at your home?