Saturday, December 24, 2016
On the Night Before Christmas
When my mother was a young dancer in New York City, she befriended another member of her troupe, Genia, who was a recent refugee and immigrant following the devastation of World War II.
At Christmas time, when all the married people they knew went home to celebrate with their families, and all the young, single ones got left behind, Genia invited my mother, who was so far away from home, to come join her for dinner at her parents' apartment. My mother gladly accepted the offer.
It wasn't until she made her way to the address Genia had given her that she realized she was traveling to a very poor section of the city. Locating the apartment building, she made her way up the narrow staircase to knock on the Melnitchenko door.
Inside were Genia and her aging parents, a couple who once were subjects of the Czar of Russia, but who, by the time of the revolution, had immigrated to France. Now, they had left home once again, this time for New York.
Christmas for newly-arrived immigrants looked quite different than the holiday my American mother had been raised to expect. There was a tree, of course, but to my mother's horror in what amounted to a crowded tenement apartment, after their Christmas Eve dinner, her hosts had reverted to their old-world custom of lighting their tree with candles. Real candles.
Nothing tragic happened, of course. The four of them—Genia, her parents and my mother—continued their delightful visit, and eventually my mother bid her hosts adieu and returned to her own apartment.
Over the years, while our family has had a number of different touches added to our annual Christmas tree decorations, I can't say we ever experimented with including candles in the holiday motif. At least, not on the tree. We've hung tinsel—the old-fashioned kind that was made to hang straight—strand by strand with patience. We've made garlands of popcorn and cranberries—yep, also with patience—and strung them around the tree. There have been blinky lights and steady-glowing lights, stars and ornaments—all sorts of ways to capture and reflect the glow of the Christmas spirit.
Just as our family's style of decorating a tree changed over the years, so have the traditions over decades and centuries. Apparently, the custom of including a tree for the holiday has deep roots in history, itself. Of course, the trend of capturing those holiday decorations on film is a more recent development, but looking through photographs of Christmas trees over the last hundred-plus years is an interesting excursion down memory lane.
No matter what your preference for holiday decorations is, may yours be a warm time of celebration with those who mean the most to you. And may there be something included which catches your eye and sparks a memory of a loved one, whether a remembrance of Christmases long past, your recent past, or part of your present gathering this weekend.
Above: Photograph from 1900 by J. D. Cress, entitled "What is a home without love?" J. D. Cress, at one time a member of the Chicago Society of Amateur Photographers, later was employed as a photographer by a weekly trade journal. Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress; in the public domain.