My father was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1891. At least he thought that was the year. They have fires in Chelsea, and his birth records went up in one of them.
His father, for whom I am named, was in the junk business—a recycler before that word was invented. They used to go by horse and wagon across Massachusetts, and then into New Hampshire. Somehow, they found Claremont, and moved there in 1900. They were the poorest family in a poor town.
I came along in 1939. Yet I hold clear memories of Christmas in Claremont more than half a century ago, in the 1940’s and 50’s. Festive lights adorned Pleasant Street, and shoppers from all of Sullivan County came to shop. We were Jewish, along with fifty or so other families. In a town of 12,000, that put us in a pretty small minority.
Not that it mattered that much. We knew it wasn’t “our” holiday, but we wanted it to be. Maybe Jews observed Hanukkah in those days, but I don’t remember much of that. It was either Christmas or nothing.
In school, of course, it was Christmas. We all sang carols, and if we had any sense of uneasiness about praising Jesus, we managed to put it to one side. Everyone knew we were not celebrating the religious holiday, but no one told us we couldn’t enjoy the spirit of the season along with everyone else. After all, Irving Berlin wrote “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and he was Jewish.
Here, a brief digression. I played junior league basketball and named my team the “Brown Bombers” after my hero, heavyweight champ Joe Louis. The irony of the fact that Claremont had only one black family (now that’s a minority!) never occurred to me. Anyway, I saw the other kids go to the foul line and cross themselves before shooting. It seemed to work for them, so I started doing the same thing. I thought that was how you made foul shots. Eventually, the coach took me aside and explained that particular fact of life to me. So, I stopped crossing myself, which, as I recall, really hadn’t done me much good.
Back to Christmas. My sister wanted a tree, and our indulgent father said she could have one, but in her room. That was ok, since she happened to have her own fireplace. So we had stockings and Santa, and no one knew.
Eventually, my sister changed her mind, and we stopped having a Christmas tree. I remember thinking it was the right thing to do—it’s not our holiday. But I missed it for a long time. Being with my parents and sister, opening our presents—it was special and memorable. Christmas at the Steinfields, second floor, my sister’s bedroom. I’m glad we had those Christmases together. My father died in 1957 … on Christmas Day.