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Friday, December 20, 2019

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

VINTAGE SANTA CLAUS: The post card below was sent to Anna Wilson (later Denny) of Bradford about 1912.  The written message assured her that her name was on Santa's list of good children. By that tie, Santa Claus as a bearer of gifts was well established in the minds of little children. (Bradford Historical Society).


CHRISTMAS WISH BOOK. This 1950 edition of the Sears Christmas catalog may bring back memories for readers of a certain age who looked forward to its annual arrival with anticipation.  It was normal for children to leaf through its pages and create a Christmas wish list by circling those items they desired.

MIDDLE CLASS CHRISTMAS- -For many families the gift-filled image in this advertisement was beyond their means.  Unless local organizations like Operation Santa Claus assisted, parents struggled to meet even a portion of their children's wish list.t 

HISTORICAL COLLECTION--From 19th century dolls to cap guns, toy tractor and telephone to a 1960s Fisher-Price school bus, these toys from the collection of the Bradford Historical Society were likely Christmas gift. (Larry Coffin)  

“Those parents who know that a Toy at suitable times is as useful as a book, are invited to select from our assortment some time for Christmas and New Year’s Presents for their Children.” Brinsmaid & Brothers, Church Street, Burlington, January 5, 1844.  

This advertisement in the Burlington Free Press is one of the earliest that specifically mentions toys as holiday gifts. It went on to describe a selection of blocks, crying dolls, balls, toy whips, tin horses and china animals.

The column that follows describes a variety of children’s Christmas gifts from the late 19th century through the 1970s.  Portions of the article are taken from my December 2008 column. I have added comments from folks in my bowling league, my church and at senior meal sites and from just about anyone I came in contact with who looked like they were a child before 1975.

This was unscientific and readers are invited to use their own experiences as a reflection.

 Author Stephen Nissenbaum describes the history of Christmas and notes that until the early 1800s “there were no intimate family gatherings or giving of Christmas presents to expectant children…it was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.” But that started to change as a result of activities of a group of New Yorkers including Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

The writings of these two men focused on child-centered family celebrations and depicted Santa Claus much as we picture him today, the kindly maker of toys for children.

The first Christmas advertisements began to appear in New England newspapers in the 1820s. Santa Claus was included to encourage sales. Almost as quickly as these promotions began to appear, so did concern that to avoid spoiling their children, parents needed to balance indulgence with restraint.

 The “invented tradition” of Santa Claus in a domestic gift-centered setting encouraged the use of the Christmas tree after 1830. Public Christmas trees were used in Vermont and New Hampshire by the 1850’s, if not before.  By the time of the Civil War, Christmas had become a legal holiday in many states.  

 Local newspapers from the latter half of the 19th century reflect the growth of the celebration of the Christmas season. While Bradford’s National Opinion had only a few seasonal advertisements in the 1860s, local columns told of Christmas Festivals from West Fairlee and Lyme to Newbury and Woodsville. A Christmas Eve service at the West Bradford Methodist Church featured “a Christmas tree, well-filled with fruits of all kinds.”

  In a custom that continued in some towns until the 1920s, families would exchange presents in this community setting. Santa Claus appeared in Orford at the Congregational Church in December1871 “along with a large lot of presents for all.”

 In the years that followed, area merchants took full advantage of Christmas sales.  In 1874, a front page article announced that “Agents for Santa Claus have been in Bradford and called upon most of the traders in town and left a large quantity of goods suitable for Christmas and New Year’s presents.”  This “lively realization of the fancies of childhood” included rosy-cheeked dolls, whirligigs, teetotums, puzzles and games.
 A later edition reported that M.P. Warren of Fairlee “Just returned from Boston and it is surprising what Christmas gifts you can buy for 10 cts.”

Newspapers went on to report a relatively new practice: “Many of the citizens of Bradford had Christmas trees at their homes. “The earliest trees often had candles that were lit under close supervision and with a pail of water close by. The United Opinion of 1909 mentions that the Piermont church had given up candles “less Santa Claus’s whiskers catch on fire.” Stockings were hung to be filled with small gifts and fruit.  Children were admonished to be good, for bad children might receive just a lump of coal or a rotten potato.

 A number of local elders have shared their Christmas memories for the 2008. Other than Eris Eastman, the ones identified below have since passed away.  Their memories reflect Christmas in generally simpler times.

Many years ago my neighbor Florence Workman of Orford recalled her childhood experience at a community celebration in the early 1880s. She arrived with her family to see an array of gifts under the tree. “That beautiful doll could not be for me.” she thought. But, as gifts were distributed, the doll was for little Florence, a gift from her parents.

 Often money was scarce and therefore gifts were simple and usually homemade. Robert and Priscilla Fadden of North Haverhill, recalled Christmas as they were growing up in Piermont in the 1920s. Robert recalls that he received homemade gifts such as knitted items or a homemade toy. Some store-bought items such as pants or gloves were purchased in Bradford. Priscilla recalls the Piermont school pageant and tree at the town hall, but also recalls that “slow but sure, gifts began to be given at home.”

Lucy Dutton Farley of Wells River recalled that in the 1930s, Christmas was a simple time. Homemade gifts and homegrown food were among her favorite memories. Her family joined others for free movies at Woodsville’s Tegu’s Theatre complete with small gifts. Roland Moore of Woodsville has similar memories: of a whole fifty cents to spend on gifts for his mother, brother and grandparents. Ten cents for each left young Roland with a dime to buy a game for himself, something he purchased after bargaining down the price at a local store.

 The amount of anticipated gifts depended on the fortunes of one’s family, with a bag of marbles or small doll being a major gift for some. Roy Tyler, born in Haverhill in 1920, recalled that when his family lost their farm in McIndoe Falls, their Christmases were “lean.” In contrast, Eris Eastman recalled that her Taplin Hill family was able to provide “lots of gifts at home.”

 After the lean years of the Depression and World War II, the prosperity of the post-war years had its impact on Christmas. But as before, each family fashioned its own traditions. Perhaps it was saving in a Christmas Club or the arrival of packages from distant relatives. Santa shopped at the overflowing stores in Bradford, Wells River or Woodsville.  There was the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog and the Saturday Evening Post with its Rockwell Christmas cover.

  I asked a number of folks what childhood holiday gift still holds the best memories for them. Many responded without hesitation. Dolls were the most frequently mentioned gifts for little girls. Bride Doll was purchased at a local First National Store for a seven year old. “Sucker” was the name given to a “wonderfully realistic baby doll” for one little Orford child. Baby Ann for a Bradford girl’s Christmas doll.

Some gifts were fulfillments of a child’s wish list to Santa. In Jean Shepard’s classic A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker’s wished for an official Red Ryder air rifle. The film based on that book is a regular part of current television festival schedule. Fiction became reality in 1958 for a 12-year-old West Fairlee boy who received a double barrel shotgun for Christmas. For a Bradford boy, 9, it was a pair of new skis to replace an older set. Several other men recall receiving Lincoln Logs, sleds, Tonka trucks or Erector Sets.  

Sometimes gifts were unanticipated, but became quite special. In 1945, Molly from Ryegate, 5, was told to tug on a rope poking from under her bed on Christmas morning.. Out came the sled she had wished for. In 1955, a Brownie box camera was so for a 10-year old Orford child. She recalls “I loved that camera.  It was a super gift for me.”  In 1967 a complete cowgirl outfit fulfilled the Christmas desires for a Bradford 7-year- old.

A chemistry set arrived for a self-described tomboy in 1958. It help to satisfy her interest in science. She told me she still has the gift sixty years later. Not all gifts keep such an important place as times pass.   Although she was important about 1953 for one Fairlee child, Susie Walker Doll is long gone, barely remember by her owner.

The December, 1955 editions of The United Opinion described the seasonal rush: “Stores in the village reported Christmas trade was excellent.  The Christmas lights sparkled in store windows and in streamers across Main Street.  Christmas music poured forth at frequent intervals from loud speakers, small children stared in admiration at the vast collection of toys waiting for Santa Claus…”

 On the 23rd, the newspaper reported that 30 below readings that week must have meant that Santa had left the door open when he left the North Pole. It went on to say that Christmas sales hit a record and, “Trains ran late throughout the week, so great was the burden of Christmas mail, Christmas travelers, and crippling cold.”

 One might receive Tinker Toys, Scrabble, a Barbie doll, Flying Saucer, or G.I. Joe action figure. The latter was not to be confused with a doll, of course.  If good, Santa might bring a Radio Flyer wagon or a toy John Deere tractor. Radio and later television programs such as Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver told of Christmas practices beyond the scope of many local families.

In most families, these gifts were in addition to new clothes or boots.  For younger children with older siblings, this was relief from hand-me-downs. Many recalled homemade hats and mittens knitted by family members or neighbors.

 Parents knew it was important to give equal presents to their children. To do otherwise might ruin a family holiday. One Fairlee resident vividly recalls how, when she was 3, her older sister got a giant bride doll while she only got a stuffed monkey. Sixty years later, she told me she still goes back to that Christmas morning memory.

The prosperity of middle class family resulted in multiple gifts under the Christmas tree. Not all shared that plenty. While those around her got a Raggedy Ann doll or a pull-behind toy elephant, another elder   recalled Christmases during the 1930s were complete devoid of gifts and celebration.

 One 80-year old Bradford resident recollected growing up in East Corinth with 10 siblings. She said that her mother made Stocking Monkeys for the girls in the family. These were dolls made from heavy duty socks. Additionally, each child had their Christmas stocking filled with an orange or apple and a popcorn ball.  Christmas morning in the late 1940s in that family was “fun, a lot of grabbing in hopes one got the right gift.”

Asked if she felt envious of children from other families, she said classmates’ experiences were about the same as hers. When asked if she remembers a special gift she gave her two sons, she immediately recalled a mid-1960s Christmas when each of the two boys received a model tractor with trailer and miniature cars.

  In 1943, 12-year old Pete got a football for Christmas.  It was extra special because it was delivered by his older brother Bill, home from service in the Merchant Marines. Asked which was the better gift, the football or his brother, Pete said both were very special.

Since the 1800s there have been the plea for considering gifts for the poor in the community.  Gift giving and charity were encouraged by commercial interests, organizations and religious groups. In 1857, the Vermont Historical Magazine included a poem by Brandon’s Mrs. A.H. Bingham.  Entitled “Christmas Gifts,” it concluded with the admonition “So give to the poor Christmas Gifts next Christmas Day.”

The Newbury column in an Dec. 1890 United Opinion called on readers to “Remember the poor with Christmas or New Year’s gifts…they will go a long way towards cheering the hearts of those whose hearts need cheer.” In Union Village, Mission Boxes were distributed around 1913.  During the Great Depression, as in the periods after World War I and the Flood of 1927, there were calls for donations to help the less fortunate.

In 1979, Operation Santa Claus began fulfilling this charge for hundreds of needy children in the area. Initially begun by members of the Bradford Lions Club, it continues to operate with the help of a large group of volunteers. For 40 years it has distributed toys, food bags, warm clothes and other gifts.

Toys for Tots and Barbara’s Red Stocking are two of similar programs helping children in both states this holiday season. I am sure those who spend so much effort to make these programs successful have the same heart felt satisfaction as many parents. That is, knowing on Christmas morning, the best gift, the one that may create memories for a life time, is one that is given to a child.

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