Monday, December 24, 2018

Dick’s Dispatch #82
Tales of Christmas Past
by Richard E. Venus
Most everyone, with the possible exception of those who have to clear the roads, will look forward to a White Christmas. Perhaps it would be nice to look at some over the years that were white and some that were not.
It is interesting to note that more than half of the last 60 Christmas seasons had snow. Some were just light dustings of white while others were of blizzard proportions. There were no patterns set, as sometimes several years would elapse without a snowflake and then there would be four or five years in a row when the ground was covered with white.
So Christmas 1983 is here and by now everyone must be caught up in the spirit of the season. Some will experience the joy and the peace that this holy period brings to them. Others will feel the great urge to give something nice to people they are close to and better yet, some will make life brighter for those they may not even know. Most of us will be touched in one way or another.
In looking back, we will skip a few that are a little vague and start with 1920. It was white that year and the snow was about 20 inches deep. We helped to decorate a little old cedar tree that we thought was very beautiful. 
It is doubtful if any such trees are used in Ridgefield today. We have become accustomed to the imported pines, balsams, and firs that are so pretty and then we tend to over-decorate them so much that the tree itself is completely hidden. These modern trees have a bright green color whereas our little cedar had some dark green interspersed with some faded brown.
An important feature of the cedar tree was that it did not cost anything. All that was necessary to acquire such a tree was a trip into the great wooded areas of town where they flourished on some of the poorer soil. 
After cutting the tree with a hatchet, it was fun dragging it home over the carpet of snow. There always seemed to be snow back then. 
There was considerable excitement, associated with the decorating process. No electric bulbs were used and only a very few candles. When they were lit, someone was required to be in constant attendance as the tree was a veritable tinderbox, just waiting to be ignited. 
A long rope of golden tinsel was woven through the branches of the tree and sugar plums were hung, along with candy canes and popcorn balls that my sister Mary had made in advance. If one had never seen the overdressed, over-lighted trees of today, they would no doubt agree that this quaint little symbol of Christmas, in all its simplicity, was actually a thing of great beauty.
 Christmas day started with a trudge through the snow to church and only after that, were the presents that came during the night, opened. I got a railroad engine that year that Santa had placed under the tree. It was red and by vigorously pushing it a few times, weights and springs that were carefully concealed, were activated, causing the little engine to run from room to room. It should be noted that two of my older brothers, Jack and Charley, worked on the railroad and this must have influenced Santa.
Christmas dinner was always served at 1 p.m., and though we had a large family, nine children, we always had company as well. Mom used to put the turkey in the oven of the old coal stove, the night before, as it took a long time to cook. 
The pumpkin and mince pies were hand made, as was everything, including the cranberry sauce (not jelly) and the plum pudding, with its delectable hard sauce. 
We also had nuts of various kinds and some came from our own butternut tree. Butternuts were hard to crack and we used to take an iron from the stove that was used for pressing, turn it upside down between our knees and use a hammer to open them. It was even more of a job to remove the meat but they were so good it was well worth the effort.
After dinner was over and everything put away, the older ones sat around the pot bellied stove in the living room to talk or play games while the younger ones walked to New Pond for an afternoon of skating. It seemed that skating started much earlier then, sometimes even as early as
That year, on Christmas night, it rained and froze a very heavy crust on the snow. The crust was strong enough to support a grown person. We had great fun the next day, making tunnels under the crust and crawling around under it.
The next year we had an even heavier snow storm and on Christmas morning there was a pair of ice skates under the tree, with my name on them. They were the kind that clamped onto your shoes and a key was used to tighten them, but they always seemed to come loose. The skates had a familiar look and I don’t think they were brand new. Perhaps Santa took them from some boy who had outgrown them. However, they worked out fine and after a few falls, we got used to them. 
I should have mentioned that in those days, fresh fruit was always a treat and we always looked forward to getting an orange.
We did not have snow for Christmas in 1923 but under the tree this time was a fine Hohner harmonica. I found later that my cousin Ed Sullivan had given it to Santa for delivery.  This was an exceptionally fine musical instrument and I soon taught myself to play it. In fact, in the next few years, I made considerable money with it. It was the same harmonica that I played on the program that opened radio station WICC in Bridgeport in 1926.
It snowed again in 1924 and this year the church was allowed to celebrate midnight Mass for the first time in 25 years. It was snowing hard as we walked to church carrying our lanterns. There were no street lights on Catoonah Street and only a very few on Main Street at the time.
It has always been my opinion that people tend to remember only the things they want to remember. Therefore, the year 1925 is pretty much of a blank to me. It was that year that I had to leave friendly little old Titicus School and advance to the big school on East Ridge. The advancement was not appreciated in the least. 
However, two things happened around Christmas that broke through the barrier. One of my newspaper customers lived in one of the apartments over Bissell’s Drug Store. Her name was Mary Cooney and we called her Miss Cooney. She was a doctor and I think she was a chiropractor. At any
rate, she took a liking to me and bought a chance in a raffle at S.D. Keeler’s store, across the street where Ridgefield Auto Parts is now. Miss Cooney put my name on the raffle ticket and when I delivered the paper to the store, they informed me that I had won the 25-pound turkey that was offered as a prize. 
The store offered to deliver the huge turkey to what was then 181 Main Street (now 612 Main). However, I was so excited that I placed the turkey in my little red wagon and raced home with it. In those days the food given to poultry did not contain the vitamins we have today and a good-sized turkey would be around 15 pounds. I was very proud to have made this contribution to our family's Christmas, but I guess that this monster caused my mother all kinds of problems because of its size. 
Also, about this time, Jimmy Begin bought Charles Wade Walker’s “Happy Hour Store” and gave me the job opening the store in the morning. This was a big thing for me and I took my new responsibilities very seriously. 
Our original intention was to write a little something about each Christmas and whether or not it was white, from 1920 to the present time. As can be plainly seen, I will not get by the first five years. So perhaps there will be another time.
My mother, my brother Joe, and my daughter Elizabeth Ann were all born during the Christmas season and we always felt that their birthdays suffered a little because of the proximity to the Lord’s birthday. 
We thought Lizzie might be a Christmas present but instead she was the first baby born in Norwalk Hospital in 1942. The William Roys had beautiful twin girls, Mimi and Margy, born the next day, on January 2. They were good friends of Elizabeth Ann and came to her party one New Year’s Day when they were still little girls. Someone asked them why they were not born on New Year’s Day and Mimi quickly answered, “We would have been, but my Daddy had to go hunting that day.”
We will take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, healthy, and holy holiday season and a better 1984.

(NOTE: Dick Venus, who became Ridgefield’s first town historian, wrote 365 “Dick’s Dispatch” columns for the Ridgefield Press, telling about life in Ridgefield during the first half of the 20th Century. This column appeared Dec. 22,1983. We plan to publish many of them on Old Ridgefield.)

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