By Jake Jakubuwski
For some reason I have no childhood recollection of the aromas of holiday cakes, cookies and pies filling our house with mouth-watering scents that drew me to the kitchen to sneak a taste of the latest treat from the oven. That was the sort of Christmas scene they showed in the movies and on that new thing called television. Nor do I recall a fir tree standing in our “front” room decorated with tinsel and strung with lights. I’m pretty sure that from time-to-time there must have been a tree and tinsel at our house — and perhaps even twinkling lights — but I just can’t remember them. In general, my personal recollections of Christmases in South Baltimore are, at best, sparse. Yet, on the other hand, for some reason I do recall “gifts” that I received at Christmas: a scarf to keep my throat warm; a pair of mittens to keep my hands toasty; a woolen cap that I could pull down over my ears on icy days while I walked to school or played outside. But there were no bicycles, roller skates, wagons or board games in the offing. Whatever I received was something I needed — practical, everyday stuff that was, as I recall, very much appreciated.
I don’t remember how old I was when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but I do remember one year when, as winter set in, I told my mother that I wanted a pair of galoshes and she said: “We can’t afford them. Maybe Santa will bring you a pair.” I don’t remember what I got instead, if I got anything at all, but I do remember feeling disappointed with Santa, and perhaps that’s when I began to at least doubt his existence. A friend, who has followed some of my other childhood adventures on this blog, has encouraged me write about what Christmas meant to a young boy in a South Baltimore family of limited means, so here you have it. So, what do I remember about those early, materially scant Christmases? Well, snow, for one thing. I remember the streets covered in white and kids whooping and hollering as they belly-flopped on their new sleds. I remember them shooting their cap guns and never running out of ammunition. I recall other kids trudging around in the deepest snow banks to show off their new galoshes — gloating because their shoes didn’t get wet. All Christmas gifts, as I remember.
My most vivid memories of Christmas in South Baltimore are of the week or two leading up to the holiday: Grownups hurrying from one store to another in the shopping area around Cross and Light Streets, all of them carrying huge bags filled with gifts and gaudy decorations for their homes; I remember Salvation Army bands playing Christmas carols and other charity workers standing by their red kettles ringing bells to entice donations from passersby; mostly I remember the various Santa’s (who knew there was more than one?) standing on street corners with their own bells and buckets, soliciting pocket change to help feed and dress the poor. I remember buying a hot dog with all the “fixin’s” for a dime in Cross Street Market, and a vendor who gave me a hard pretzel and said “Happy holidays!” I also remember selling newspapers and every so often someone giving me a nickel or dime tip, and wishing me a Merry Christmas.
On more than one Christmas Eve I remember marveling at how many people were scurrying for streetcars, hurrying home for the holiday. I remember passing the local bars as revelers came out shouting greetings to their friends. Peering inside, I saw the Christmas decorations supplied by the beer companies (Mostly American, National and Arrow beers) glittering on the walls and over the bars. I remember the smell of beer and wine and cigarettes wafting out of the doors, along with the sound of Christmas music from the juke boxes, and how, when the doors closed the cacophony of carols and the vociferous celebration of the bar’s patrons was muted to a dull buzz.
And, finally, after more than sixty years, I can still remember the silence in the streets the day before The Big One, as snow fell (as it always does in my black and white soft-focus memory), covering South Baltimore in a crisp blanket that seemed to give all it sheltered an alabaster sheen to purify us each and everyone for Christmas day in the morning.
Jake Jakubuwski spent nearly two decades as an active locksmith and door service technician. He has been writing physical security related articles since 1991. Seventeen years ago, Jake wrote his first article for the National Locksmith Magazine and has been their technical editor for fifteen years. Pure Jake Learning Seminars©, his nationally conducted classes, are designed for locksmiths and professional door and hardware installers. For more information, click the “Pure Jake” link in the sidebar blogroll and under the “business” label. To locate more of Jake’s short blog pieces about growing up in the South Baltimore area, copy and paste—or type—his name into the sidebar search window and tap “search.”)
Ha! Another great one, Jake. I can smell the odors wafting through the open doorways in the barrooms and hear the bells rung by the sidewalk Santas once again. (I don’t actually remember snow on Mosher Street as much as I remember slush. )
I know from ‘whence you come.’ My Christmases in Baltimore were quite a bit like yours. Not much in the way of presents. Everyone decorated though. We were one of the families that put their tree up rather early. They were pretty much done for by the time Christmas actually came around. Traditionally, trees were usually tossed in the alley behind our apartment the day after Christmas (at least we usually had a tree).
Something I will never forget, was one day after Christmas, I was in ‘our’ yard, when a man with a little kid came down the alley, oohing and aahing over the trees they found there. “Here’s a great one” he said to his kid . . . and they picked it up and carried it home. I don’t think he saw me . . . the kid was wild with joy over finding just the right used tree . . . it broke my heart. I learned that day that there is poor, and POOR. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how rich that kid really was. She had a father who loved her. More than I could say for myself, mind you.
Don’t you just love the holidays?
Thanks for the comment, Jacquie. You “nudged” me. I forgot about the trees in the alleys. Yes, there’s poor and really poor. In my memories, money was in short supply and parental participation in my life consisted of . . . Well, anyway, my years in South Baltimore taught me a lot of lessons that have stood me in good stead throughout my life. Merry Christmas! Sorry, no hard pretzels by email (:O)
Once again, many thanks to Jake and Jacquie for supporting this blog. Given our similar backgrounds, perhaps we should form a trio, something along the lines of Peter, Paul and Mary, only poorer . . . “The Street Kids: Jake, Jacquie and Jim,” . . . has a nice ring to it . . . or maybe a Doo Wap group . . . city night scene, standing on the corner under a street light, harmonizing, etc. . . .
Doo Wop, indeed! I don’t know about you and Jacquie but I’d have a hard time carrying harmony in a bucket!
On the other hand, standing on the corner, under a street light, was another SB passtime. Rather then signing, we were usually plotting our next bit of mischeif or trying to snatch rides on the back of trolly cars! And that’s when riding the trolly was only a nickel!
Jim, do you and Jacquie remember when five cents would get you just about anywhere you wanted to go in Baltimore by street car?