Christmas in Port Richmond
Growing up in Port Richmond represented a delicate balance of delight and anguish.
It sits north of center city Philadelphia, and though a residential district, back
then, it catered to industry, and served as a transportation hub for the for the Delaware Valley. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but I would hope not.
Many who lived there stayed. Frankly, it was
where they were raised, where parents lived, where children were born, where they worked, and where they spent their free time. Embedded into the surrounds were churches, schools, meeting halls, bars, community centers,
factories, railroads, trolley lines, gangs, mummers and syndicates. Tension and demands of daily life imbued every individual’s experience. Few expected but all hoped for “happiness” as life’s promise.
Practically speaking, they anticipated “struggle” and aspired somehow to survive to a retirement without misery. Always was the hope their children would have better lives.
Philadelphia summers were
unspeakably hot, and each sweltering morning unblanketed with the attending odor of factories, refined metals, and chemicals floating from smokestacks, furnaces, and dump sites, wafting their butterfly courses until
coming to rest on our persons, in our lungs, eyes, and hair, even soiling our newly washed cars as a brazen reminder of our helplessness. Typically, autumn came with crisp air, and the fall winds occasionally brought
clear days, when times at the local park would transport us to new worlds, where we frolicked through piles of leaves, and admired the squirrels, as wild an animal as many of us would ever see (and a far cry from
summer’s roaches and rats).
Winters could be almost as unbearable as summers, with bitter cold running deep into our bones whenever we stepped from the embrace of our homes. Steam radiators, now antiques,
provided an unforgettable warmth and comfort not found in my life since. Winter brought illness, and every year we dreaded the flu. In those days, people died from it. Being flat on your back for a week or two was
to be expected, even when the doctor made housecalls.
In the midst of winter’s freeze came Christmas.
Childhood in the big city was on occasion, magical, once you learned how to move about. This may seem
hard to believe, but in those days holiday season didn’t start until after Thanksgiving. We all eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa and the Macy’s Christmas parade as the formal kickoff to Christmas shopping, and
the brief period when the entire inner city transformed to crystaldom, with colored lights, snow, music, wreaths, and pleasantries becoming the norm. As a preteen, I would take the trolley and ride the elevator or
subway (when it went below ground) into town. There I explored every inch of Wanamaker’s, Gimbels, and Lit Brothers, and surveyed the competing displays of Christmas trains, decorations, trees, and abundance. The
possibilities seemed limitless.
Of course, nothing good comes without its price. Lest we thought Christmas too good to be true, truth stared at us hard and cold snapping us quickly back to reality.
Our home was a bakery. My stepfather Eddie was the baker, and my mother Wanda ran the business, along with whatever help from family or friends or short term hires they could elicit during the impossibly busy holiday
period. Beneath our hundred plus year old inner city brick home, there was an extensive, historical, basement area, with brick ovens, that ran in seemingly endless dimensions and nurtured the ever beating heart of our
family enterprise. Eddie liked to say our house used to be the original German school. Even today, decades afterwards, it is hard for me to recollect my stepfather (I feel more comfortable calling him father for the
balance of this piece) sleeping between Thanksgiving and New Years. He would occasionally come up, eat, collapse for an hour, then someone in the bakery would call him back to the next batch waiting to come out. It was
no different for my mother, who would waken to customers lined up, knocking on our side (residential) entry door in the pre-dawn, hurling profanities about how they had driven from New York to buy some Polish babka, and
needed to get back to their families.
In short, it was a madhouse!
My mother was always careful to decorate the store with a Nativity scene, and copious Christmas lights with banners. Our own home, above
and beside the bakery, had to wait. Really, there was no living but for the business during that time. Customers would walk into our living room, sit down on the sofa as if to watch TV, and in Polish or English (the
languages of Port Richmond), enter long, seemingly never ending, conversations with myself, my mother, my grandmother, my father, or whoever happened to be there.
Like every family business, the bakery was our
lifeboat, and it was sacred. Any semblance of family life, or personal life, or personal interests, disappeared in the shadow of this beast (yes, it was a beast, albeit one which provided for our needs and sustenance).
But as a child, I clung to the revelry of the season, and fixed my dreams and wishes on the magic of the moment, not to mention what I hoped to get on Christmas Day. Tension from our lives and environment
mounted throughout the period, and the weeks leading to Christmas meant stress, high emotions, bitter arguments, and cataclysmic fights. On top of all, I faced winter examinations at school, along with the impossible
requirements and demands of my teachers all the while expecting to be called into the bakery shop, or down to the bakery because of yet another sudden crisis or simply because everyone else was exhausted to depletion.
Typically, as Christmas Day approached, our lives became impossibly grim. In the final week all we could look forward to was that it would all stop on Christmas Day (And then start again, for one final spurt, the
several days before New Year’s.)
We didn’t know family traditions from nothing. Just as everything hit the redline (i.e. the fan), the bio-tachometers spinning in blurred circles with everyone on the verge of
coming unhinged, Christmas Eve rolled around. It was undoubtedly the busiest day of the year, with the store packed to overflowing the entire day from 5 a.m. until closing at 11 PM. Even after closing, we would have
knocks on the door, and scratches at the bakery windows, for those who still wanted some final treats for their families. Though rarely mentioned or even acknowledged by the local population, many families residing in
Port Richmond did not have the means or resources to afford even their Christmas sweets. Those families would show up at the doorstep as we closed 11 p.m. inquiring for any leftovers or “day olds.” Of course, there
were none, only what we kept for our own enjoyment, for friends and family. Somehow, my mother would find something she could call a leftover or day-old pastry, and for a quarter, provide enough for some of those
families. I didn’t make much of this, until her passing at age 81, having outlived my father, and almost all of her friends. At her funeral, a woman came to me, shook my hand, and said “I want you to know your
mother was good to me and my family.”
Christmas Day, positioned well into the mid-Atlantic frigid season, was not infrequently accompanied by a hellacious snowstorm. Even today, I remember well the white
Christmases that were part of my youth. These even included genuine blizzards, some starting Christmas Eve, and going all the way through till Christmas morning.
Characteristically, I would attend midnight mass.
Churches in the inner city were wonderfully huge monolithic structures, all supported by the extraordinary numbers of Catholic immigrants and their descendants who without exception, loyally participated and supported
their parishes. Within a mile of our home, there was Nativity (the Irish parish), our Lady help a Christian (the German parish), and St. Adalbert’s (the Polish parish). A bit further was St. Ann’s (the Italian
parish)...you get the idea. At midnight on Christmas Eve, Nativity, which was my usual choice, celebrated a solemn high mass in the top-level church, and a quick mass in the basement church. Because of the spirit of the
season, my choice was usually the high mass, which would run until nearly 2 a.m., after which I would hook up with friends, and traverse through the snow under the winter stars (it was the one evening each year when
stars were truly visible). Only when the bitter cold overwhelmed would I would return home to the radiator, where my father and mother were nearby, collapsed on their chairs usually watching Alastair Sims in the last
showing of Christmas Carol.
I didn’t make much of it in the old days, but my father took the Christmas Carol and its lessons, very seriously. I don’t remember him ever going to church, but I do remember he
never missed the Christmas Carol. Under his tired breath he would mumble curses at Scrooge, and then silently delight in Scrooge’s rebirth at the end. In hindsight, I believe for my father, Scrooge was about
possibilities. As long as Scrooge continued to be reborn there was somehow hope for Eddie, and a life that had numbed him to all emotion and human interface, could somehow be righted and restored to full beauty in a
Well, it never did work out that way. The unending demands gradually wore him down, until at the end, little of his essential essence remained to be reborn or restored to anything.
So there they
were, motionless, collapsed on the couch watching Scrooge, a slight odor of whiskey hovering. The Christmas tree was not up, and presents were not out.
Every Christmas, as I went to sleep in the early a.m. it
looked they were so exhausted, that even Santa would pass over our house, scared into head for safer places, rather than deal with this bleakness.
I went to sleep, not expecting Christmas morning to materialize.
When the first rays of morning sun forced me awake, I charged down the stairs and inevitably found a huge and incredibly ornamented Christmas tree, sitting atop the TV cabinet with beautifully decorated presents laid
beneath, spilling over onto the floor. I was alone, with the entire living room to myself, and my booty. It would be several hours before anyone budged on the second floor, and my father and mother would come
downstairs. Late in the morning, sometimes even afternoon, my father would descend the steps, looking like the ghost of Scrooge himself, three-day beard on his face, several layers of bags beneath his eyes, hair going
in all directions at once. My mother would appear nearly simultaneously, literally bloated with exhaustion, wearing her robe, and hoping I remembered to buy something for her. My father would say not a word as he passed
me, I, completely absorbed with my menagerie, maneuvering about on the floor. He went into the kitchen, lit another cigarette, turned on the coffee, and remained in the kitchen for several hours, with his coffee,
smoking cigarettes, not expecting anything beneath the tree to be for himself. Of course, he wasn’t forgotten, he simply chose to be patient in his expectations, and hopes. Not surprisingly, today that trait
lives within me.
As a youngster, I believed in Santa Claus well beyond the age when most depose him to the realm of pretence. For those Christmases at home, there would be nothing at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning,
and a three-ring circus when I awoke at 6:30. To my young eyes and imagination, it was not humanly possible or even explainable. Only a true spirit of the greatest stature and kindness could have turned this depleted,
exhausted, and empty home of Christmas Eve, into the carnival of Christmas morning.
You can see why it was so hard for me to let go of Santa Claus.
Now, they are both long gone, and I haven’t been to a
midnight mass in decades. Though I don’t miss the trials of my early childhood in Philadelphia, I never forget that even in their midst, irreplaceable blessings were had. To this day, when I am asked by children
whether there is a Santa Claus, I respond “Oh yes. And how I miss him, and his helper.”