Christmas throughout the decades, as seen through the pages of the Eagle
Christmas has been Christmas for centuries, but the ways it has been observed and celebrated have changed considerably over time. Nothing shows this more than a look at the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from the 1860s through the early 1950s.
Some things have remained constant, like Christmas trees and Santa Claus. The Eagle from Dec. 26, 1879 describes the “Annual Visit of Santa” to the children of Plymouth Church Sunday School in Brooklyn Heights. The hall was decorated with Christmas trees, and the children were entertained by Christmas carols, the singing of secular holiday songs like “The Little Tin Soldier,” readings from the Scriptures and the handing out of awards. Finally, the sound of sleigh bells was heard, and through the front doors stepped Santa himself.
However, some customs that we think of as having been around forever were once new. The Eagle of Dec. 26, 1865, reported, “In many places, particularly along the Heights, a new and pleasing feature was adopted. Windows were profusely decorated with Christmas greens, and the blinds left open.” Conversely, on Dec. 26, 1889, the Eagle lamented that “The custom of sending Christmas cards may be dying out.” As readers know, that prediction turned out to be wrong.
In those days, church attendance was very important to Brooklyn residents—but so was the secular side of the holiday. The Dec. 26, 1874 Eagle reported, “From the early morning until noon, the streets were thronged with church goers. In the latter part of the day, throngs of pedestrians were on the chief thoroughfares, moving towards theatres, skating ponds or parks.”
Among the Brooklyn churches that were mentioned through the years in connection with Christmas are many that readers will recognize today: the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, the Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope, the Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church, the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, the Baptist Temple, the “Church of the Generals” in Bay Ridge, St. Ann’s Church and the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, and, sadly, the Church of the Redeemer in Boerum Hill, which was demolished last year.
One custom that seems to have disappeared is the holding of festive Christmas Eve balls. The Dec. 27, 1876 Eagle, in a report on “the secular side of the holiday,” reported that many such balls were held that year. The article focused on the annual ball of the Brooklyn Letter Carriers Association at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: “The ladies, elegantly costumed in the latest style, were perfectly bewitching … The guests tripped away the hours of the night and early morning.”
Another feature of the holiday season for many years was the annual celebration and present-giving for working-class children that was sponsored by the Sittig Christmas Tree Society, headed by Mrs. Lena Sittig. According to the Eagle of Dec. 26, 1901, that year’s celebration was held in the Orpheum Theater on Fulton Street just east of Flatbush Avenue and attracted 2,500 children and parents. The entertainment included a “women’s band,” trained animals, a singer who led the youngsters in popular songs, and finally Santa, emerging from a mock chimney onstage. Then, the children filed up to the stage to receive their presents.
Mrs. Sittig, who lived on Jefferson Avenue in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant, died in August 1913. Her obituary explained that she lost her first child soon after its birth, and she decided to remember the infant by bringing joy to as many children as possible. Her society continued to sponsor events at least into the early 1930s, but starting in the ‘20s, they were held in cooperation with the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations.
The Sittig Society wasn’t the only group that held such large charitable events on Christmas. For Yuletide of 1897, the East End Christmas Tree Association held a party for 2,500 children and adults at the Amphion Theater on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. After gifts, food and clothing were distributed, one boy, Thomas Leyland, sang an original song that went, in part: “Goodbye dear old Brooklyn/The last day of the year/We can all be good citizens/Of a bigger city next year.” He was anticipating the Consolidation of 1898 (called by some the “Mistake of 1898”), in which Brooklyn was absorbed into New York City.
Special celebrations were held by the borough’s German societies. German-Americans were among the most prominent ethnic groups in Brooklyn until the rise of anti-German bigotry during World War I forced many of them to downplay their identity. The Eagle of Dec. 26, 1913, described a Christmas celebration sponsored by several German organizations and held at the German Hospital at (appropriately) St. Nicholas Avenue and Stanhope Street in Bushwick. “The celebration was held in the old-fashioned German style with plenty of Christmas trees, German songs, addresses by the directors and a splendid Christmas dinner,” the article said. The Eagle emphasized that the room had “an especially tall tree with electric lights”— in 1913, many homes still were lit by gaslight. German Hospital survives under another name, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center – it, too, was forced to change its name because of anti-German sentiment during the World War I era.
The Eagle itself also got into the Christmas spirit. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the newspaper had a children’s page edited by “Aunt Jean,” probably an employee of the paper. Kids sent in their poems, short stories and drawings to be published, and at Christmas time, the subject was the holiday season. On Dec. 21, 1930, Jean published a poem by Peggy Halpin of Dean Street in Fort Greene that declared, “Old Santa drives an airplane/With fairies on the seat/Who help him leave the presents/For the children on our street.”
The Eagle also had a neediest cases fund, similar to today’s New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. In 1919, at least half the cases involved families that were devastated by that year’s flu epidemic, which killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide.
By the early 1950s, the city was beginning to resemble the one we know today, although the cyber-age still was a long way off. The Eagle now listed sermons on radio and television as well as at local churches, and the organizations sponsoring Christmas events were ones that we recognize today: the Elks Club, the Kiwanis Club, the Knights of Columbus.
All in all, the Brooklyn Eagle gives a fascinating view into how the observance of Christmas in the borough has changed over the years—and how it has remained the same.
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