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Christmas Season From Yesterday (1940 -1960)

By Charles McGrath

Home Decorations

        Back in the 1940's Christmas exterior residential house decorations in Newark were minimal.  There were no outside lights.  Some houses had wreaths on the doors and others had lighted candles in the windows.  That was about it.  If one wanted to see Christmas lighting you would have to drive through the wealthy neighborhoods like Wyoming Avenue in South Orange.

        The string of lights on the Christmas tree were wired in series.  That meant if one burned out the whole string went out.  We would go crazy substituting a new bulb in each socket until the string lit.  Remember those type of lights?  Some people would use all blue lamps on their tree.  As a kid I thought that looked eerie.  We would also put angel hair on the tree as a decoration.  This was spun glass (similar to today's fiberglass) and it would give the appearance of snow.  Does anyone remember angel hair?  If you touched it you never forgot it.  The little glass fibers had a nasty habit of getting into your skin with the pain of poison ivy.  God only knows what it did to our respiratory system.

Christmas Tree

        The Christmas trees were horrible.  They were balsam trees all field cut from the forests of New England.  They were brought into Newark by train.  Most were sold locally by individuals.  Today's Christmas tree (Balsam, Frazier, Douglas Fir and Scotch Pine) are grown in nurseries.  They are just about perfect where the old balsam trees were always imperfect.  They were grown in the forest with inadequate sunlight and at least one side lacked branches.  We compensated for this by adding branches to the bare side.  These trees cost around $2.00 and up.  That would be approximately $20.00 in today's money.  Home Depot today is selling Balsam trees for $20.00 but they do not require plastic surgery.

Santa Claus

        Santa Claus was in abundance.  The best one was in Bambergers.  But there were many more to be found in the Down Town area.  Remember Santa Claus in front of the stores ringing a bell.  He would have a container (chimney, bucket or pail) for donations.  Most of these men were down on their luck and were working for the Volunteers of America (I think that was the name of the organization) located on James Street.  As kids we were told they were Santa's helpers.  My father was a professional Santa Claus for many years.  He was Santa for the Galloping Hill Country Club in Union, P. A. L. and many other organizations.  I still have most of his costume.

Salvation Army

        They would be in front of Bambergers and other stores playing their musical instruments.  They weren't the greatest musicians but they did add charisma to the season.  The Salvation Army is one of the best charities.  Around 25 years a tenement on Brookdale Avenue (a couple of doors in from South Orange Avenue, on the right hand side of the street) caught fire.  Several families were homeless and I can remember within an hour a representative was on the scene offering lodging to anyone who needed it.

Nativity

        The most impressive Nativity was in front of Seton Hall University.  They had live animals (donkey, ox, sheep and a goat).  The statues were just about life size.  They also had the star of Bethlehem on the roof of President's Hall.  This was discontinued in the 1960's.  Does anyone remember it?  Sacred Heart Church had an excellent nativity.  As a tradition we would borrow straw from it for our own nativity at home.  There was also a Catholic Church by the Columbus Projects that had a National renown nativity.  My wife and I visited it once.  I think the name of the church was Saint Lucy's.  It was an Italian parish that survived the urban renewal.  Does anyone remember?

Friendly Neighbors

        Hannon's on Centre Street in South Orange.  They had a tremendous Christmas display on their property.  The reindeer and sleigh were in mid air between their house and the garage.  They would also give candy to the kids ( Hannon's Floor Covering in Newark ).  Does anyone remember him?

        There was also another nice man (on Mount Vernon Place near Stuyvesant Avenue) who was Santa and he would give candy to the kids.

Merry Christmas

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