Remembering Christmas ‘back in the day’

By on December 26, 2018

Christmas memories from the past — some just a few years ago and others dating back decades — seem to bubble up in the weeks leading up to the holiday.

Viola White, “Vi” to everyone, turned 100 years young in 2018. She, along with her younger sister Fae Renninger, 86, are residents of Luther Acres in Lititz. Growing up in Ephrata when the town’s population was less than 3,000, their memories span the great depression, Pearl Harbor and the Second World War– times many living today studied in grammar school history classes.
Although White may not be able to pinpoint the exact year for some of her memories, she can come darn close. She is one of more than 75,000 centenarians in the United States, a population that has grown more than 60 percent in the last three decades.

White was one of nine seniors (all age 80 and above) from three local retirement communities who were kind enough to reminisce with me about memories from Christmases long ago.
Today, many say Christmas comes at the end of what has become a month-long circus of parties, decorations, sugar overload, and what children hope will be tons of presents from Santa and their parents. It wasn’t always that way, seniors insist.

(Left) Ken and Sara Frazer, Maxine Burky and Bob Roche at Keystone Villa.

For much of the 20th century, seniors remember Christmas as a special time for church services, visiting relatives, special holiday meals, and exchanging gifts with family and friends. Presents could be hand-made and many times children received a big gift and a lot of smaller ones that included the dreaded underwear, handkerchiefs, and socks. It was a slower time that many older adults talk about fondly.

Luther Acres, Lititz
White, one of 13 siblings, was visiting with her sister Fae when I visited in late November. They had fun helping each other recall holiday memories well before iPhones, Xbox, video drones, and other electronic devices.

“The pace was definitely slower,” says White whose earliest memory of Christmas presents are handkerchiefs she received from her Sunday school teacher which she says she still has today after 90 years. “It was sometime in the mid-1920s,” she remembers. “I know it was before I was 10.”

White remember fondly the Roxy movie theater in Ephrata in the 1930s when Santa Claus would greet children at the door and invite them in and handed out candy and a big orange. Her sister recalls Santa handing out crayons and coloring books, too. The Roxy, they remember, continued the tradition until it was destroyed by fire in 1955.
One of White’s favorite and most vivid holiday memories is of sleigh riding as a teenager in the mid-1930s when she, her boyfriend, and another couple sleighed to Brownstown for hot chocolate at Hart’s restaurant.

“It was a cold, clear winter night and it took the horse and sleigh a couple of hours to make the trip (some 10-plus miles) and there were no cars on the road. It was magic,” she remembers.
The sisters laughed when they talked about their dad and his insistence that the family Christmas tree at their Maple Street home touch the ceiling much to her mother’s chagrin.
“We had lovely hand blown glass ornaments,” Renninger remembers, “and one Christmas the tree toppled over, but fortunately was stopped by a chair and only a few or the ornaments were broken.”

Fae Renninge (left) and her centenarian sister, Vi White, at Luther Acres.

The sisters said it was the end of extra tall trees in their house.

Other Luthercare residents I spoke to — Nancy Roberts and Dot Herneisen, ages 89 and 88 respectively — were happy to share their early to mid-20th century Christmas memories. Roberts, moved north from Charlotte, N.C. to be closer to her daughter a few years back, and Herneisen, has been a lifelong, Lancaster County resident.

Roberts, the oldest and only surviving of four sisters including her twin, remembers being close to her mother’s family and spending many holidays with them in Charlotte.

“My dad was an electrician and had a car,” she remembers, “which wasn’t usual for every families in the 1930s.” When thinking back more than 70 years, Roberts smiles about taking great pleasure using Christmas roller skates on the sidewalks of her hometown.

“These weren’t the modern, in-line skates enjoyed by kids today,” she says.

Roller skates for years were four metal wheels on an adjustable metal base that tightened on your shoes with a key and an ankle strap. Herneisen, born in Manheim, grew up in a home on Fruitville Pike built on her (now, long gone) grandfather’s farm. From modest means, Herneisen, then just a teen, and her two younger sisters lost their mother in 1945.

“I took over all of the cooking and cleaning for the family, including the holidays,” she remembers. Regarding presents, Herneisen says “My dad never was much of a shopper.” And she reminded me, “There certainly wasn’t on-line shopping or a computer to do it on.”

The major department store at the time, Herneisen remembers, was Watt & Shand in Lancaster, which opened in the late 1800s and operated until purchased by Bon-Ton in the early 1990s. The historic downtown Lancaster store closed its doors in 1995.

The Herneisens came from the Mennonite tradition and Herneisen remembers holiday meals — with lots of family; her dad was one of eight children — at long tables at their Fruitville Pike home. One of favorite Christmas gifts was a wicker baby carriage (she wishes she had now) that she and her sisters each received.

Editor’s note: Sadly, Dorothy Herneisen didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy Christmas 2019 with her family. She passed away on Dec. 17.

Keystone Villa, Ephrata

At Keystone Villa in Ephrata, a group 80-plus residents had no problems recalling past Christmases and reminded me of the huge changes from what they had seen to what their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are experiencing today. Reading native Bob Roche, 84, was born in 1934, and is just old enough to remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) and World War II. He had three older brothers who all served in the Pacific Theater during the war.

He talks about the Christmas holiday in Reading of the 1940s like it was last week. Roche can see the city in his mind’s eye.

“Penn Street had stores galore, including Pomeroy’s and Whitner’s all decked out for holiday shopping.” The Reading Eagle, in a 2007 story, describes the department stores as “jewels in the crown of Reading’s shopping heyday.”

Roche also remembers Christmas trees being sold on many corners and colder Decembers with more snow and sledding and that the city closed several streets during big storms so the youngsters could sled.

The Roche family had relatives in Philadelphia and Bob says, “It was a two hour drive down Route 222 and my sister and I always sat in the outside rumble seat of my dad’s 1934 Chevrolet convertible bundled up against the wind. It was an adventure; we had a ball.”

Other Keystone residents including Ken and Sara, Frazer, age 88 and 85, and Maxine Burky, 80, also have pleasant Christmas memories. Sara Frazer says she grew up during the last years of the Depression and presents weren’t a big part of Christmas. As she got older, she does remember, however, a special, must-have Mary Lou doll as well as white, bunny-fur mittens that she wore to keep her hands warm after playing the clarinet for carolers.

“Christmas always was festive,” she says, “but never centered just around gifts.” Ken Frazer grew up in Medford, N.J., the youngest of three boys, His dad was an Episcopal minister with a number of South Jersey congregations.
“When Christmas was on a Sunday, we never opened our presents until late that evening,” he smiles. “We always accompanied our parents on Christmas rounds from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. so my dad could visit all the congregations he served.”

The Frazers say when talking to their grand- and great-grandchildren, no one believes some of their growing up experiences like the quirky, electric lights on the Christmas tree.

“Do you remember,” she reminds her friends, “when a string of Christmas tree lights went out, it probably was one bulb and you had to test all 20 or 24 to replace the bad one,” Ms. Frazer rolls her eyes. “No one believes that, but it’s true.”

Burky is a Reading native and recalls fondly the 11 p.m. service at St. Matthew’s Church followed by caroling in East Reading before bed. Growing up at the end of the Depression, Burky also says gifts weren’t the family priority, but she remembers, in particular, her seamstress mother (in the 1940s) sewing multiple outfits for her favorite doll out of Maxine’s outgrown clothing.

“It was something special that I’ll always remember,” she reminisces.

Pleasant View, Manheim
Susan Haldeman, 89, from Elizabethtown, and Mary Alice Kensinger, 81, a Penn Township native, have vivid memories from the “good old days.”

Haldeman grew up on a farm that did not have electricity until 1944 nor plumbing until 1955 — something that her 14 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren find hard to fathom. Haldeman, even at 89, remembers all her children’s children and their children by name in her daily prayers. Kensinger, born in 1937, went to school through eighth grade in a one room schoolhouse in the 1940s and remembers her teacher, Mrs. Young, who was her aunt. She kidded me about having a hot lunch at school in the winter.

“We’d bring a potato from home and put it on top of the coal burning furnace in the corner of the room,” she says, “and it would be baked by lunchtime, and a warm treat.”

“There was a Christmas tree in the corner of the school room at the holidays,” says Kensinger, who had a career as an art teacher, “and we made chains for it out of different colored strips of paper.”

Haldeman also was schooled in a one room building and remembers the paper chains, as well as stringing popcorn to decorate the tree. Both ladies remember Christmas tree ornaments were made and not bought.

Holiday school plays were put on in both Haldeman’s and Kensinger’s schools on a raised platform with a wire strung across the room holding a sheet as a curtain. Haldeman went to high school, but had to find a ride, which she did from a family friend, as there were no school buses. As an adult, she learned to journal and has been doing so for decades, giving her and her family a written history of her youth. Several of her journal pieces have appeared in Lancaster Newspapers.

All the seniors who took time to remember past Christmases for me said it was hard, but not unpleasant, and everyone I talked to stressed they came from very modest families, but never felt deprived, and wouldn’t trade it for a minute for the commercial holiday of 2018. The seniors enjoyed revisiting some very old memories of friends, caroling and special holiday events for me in talking about a time when they, too, were kids. It was my honor to listen.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net. 

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