Ask Dr. Salvo
December 24, 1993
Dear Dr. Salvo,
Now that the season of madness is upon us, now that the hunted haunted look has reappeared in the eyes of the harried Mallscrambler, now that everyone is so happy -- it occurs to me that Salvo has never told us much about the Christmas of his boyhood. What was it like in The Green House, on Dolfin Street, in Itaquai (Mauvila on the Bay). As you can see, already, legend readily becomes a part or obscures a part of true history.
I know what you are thinking: "Bah! Humbug!" and similar expressions of Yuletide joy. Nevertheless, let us hear how it really was.
Dear B.S. you should pardon the abbreviation:
I too wonder what it was like and if it was as happy as I remember it to have been (I was raised by a teacher of English).
One nice part was the Christmas tree. We tried cedars, spruces, firs, unidentified evergreens, everything but long leaf pine -- the needles were too long and the ornaments slid off. There was plenty of unposted forest around (see the bear hunt in recent column) and we would drive out in the country and choose a tree and chop it down. Never bought a tree in ten years. We decorated the tree on 24 December, not on Thanksgiving Day.
Those were the years of the Great Depression, say 1929 till World War II (or 1939, when our military-industrial complex mushroomed and turned into a thriving economy). Salvo was about four or five at the outset of this fiscal drought, and his youth and inexperience may have given the Depression quite a different flavor than the bitter one the grown ups had to swallow. Everybody was broke, but we didn't seem to notice it. A "mansion" built by a local banker cost $10,000! Or, so it was said in awe -- struck whispers. A brand new Chevrolet sedan was $650 -- but nobody noticed that, because who could buy one?
So we hauled our free Xmas tree home in the back of our Studebaker touring sedan, the one with isinglass side curtains like a surrey, and set it up in the living room. After that the children messed up the electric candles on the cords while the adults did the serious work with the old and fragile, blown glass- gilt-and tinsel ornaments. These ornaments stayed in a big wooden box in the attic and had been in the family since Fort Sumpter was fired upon. Not to be messed with. Severe penalties.
By now it is getting on to ten p.m., time to drive out to Aunt Marguerite's house at Springhill. The plan is for the adults to attend midnight Mass at Spring Hill College Chapel. In those days one needed not deal with a ticket scalper to get in amongst the vieux riche. (There were no nouveax riche.)
The plan seems to include an extra hour or two before Mass? This provided time for the children to join the adults in a glass of port and a chunk of dark fruitcake soaked in rum. By 11:30 at the latest the children had all fallen sweetly asleep, and the adults were free to shed their cares and go spend an incense and pine boughscented hour at Chapel, listening to real Latin responses and wishing to be with the choir upstairs. In those days the Romans did not sing in church, nor bring their National guitars, nor hug their neighbors etc. etc. We hankered to sing, nevertheless.
At about age 12-13 the children were allowed to go along to Mass with the adults. Of course they had to cut down on the wine and fruitcake, but the glamour, the holy enchantment, were worth the sacrifice.
In those lean years our Christmas gifts and our dinners were predictable: Wild turkey if possible; venison roast more likely; wild ducks not unlikely. Not till years later did we appreciate the gourmet status of this meal. My mother was a fine French cook, and if I say any more about the rest of the dinner I may become maudlin. I think we thought of all that wild game simply as an economy, and we were glad our father was such a good hunter. He even allowed my brother and me to pluck the fowl, dress them, and skin and gut the squirrels. As a side dish squirrels were served smothered in a brown gravy with the heads still on. A sharp tap with a spoon back or knife handle and voila! An hors d'oeuvre of squirrel brains. It puzzles me when people don't believe this story.
It was somehow comforting to know, year after year, what my presents would be: A new pair of roller skates, a new pocket knife, and a bar of hard German's Sweet Chocolate, along with assorted nuts and fruit from the stocking. Fill the pockets with the candy and fruit. Place the new knife (Sheffield steel, some of them) in the right front pocket, if one dressed to the left. Strap on the new skates and skim off to join some other braves for a game of hockey. Habitual tin-can puck players can still be spotted by the small star shaped indentations in the skin, usually the forehead or the shin for some technical reason. Thus the day peacefully passed away, with no ball games per television, and nothing on the radio till that night. Around seven or eight somebody at KDKA in Pittsburgh would get some voices together and they would read "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens, and Tiny Tim would wring our hearts. I often wondered how he obtained permission to stay up so late and work at the radio station.
If was many years before I understood poor old Scrooge and why he would growl, "Bah! Humbug!" Only imagine how he would erupt were he here today to see Christmas shopping time pushed back to Halloween!
Well thanks for your kind attention faithful listeners, and from Station KDKA in Pittsburgh in 1935 the best of Christmas wishes to you all from,