(By Gavin Keenan, originally published in 2017)
It’s popular to recall – albeit with questionable accuracy, the Christmases of our childhood. Poets, songwriters and silly memoirists love to wax nostalgic of a time and place where the winters were colder, the snows deeper, and the pace of life more manageable. Yet, for those of us lucky enough to grow up in New England, especially in Ipswich, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these things were mostly true – perhaps.
My family came to town in 1958 when I was three. Pop worked for Grossman’s then and had been transferred from Braintree to the new store in Ipswich on Washington Street. My older brothers were thirteen and ten respectively, and share memories of earlier Christmases in Braintree and Walpole before I was around. But that was on the South Shore, so who cares?
Our parents enrolled all of us in Saint Stanislaus Parochial School on Washington Street, across from the old Dustbane building where the car wash is now located. I started in the Kindergarten with Sister Jean in 1960. The boys wore white shirts, bow ties according to grade, and blue corduroy pants. The girls wore blue jumpers and corresponding shirts and ties. Saint Stan’s, as the parish was then known, served the French-Canadian community that had immigrated to Ipswich over the previous decades seeking work in the mills. The school occupied the first floor of the church building; the kindergarten was housed within the adjacent convent. The nuns were Sisters of Saint Chrétien, and came from such diverse locations as Salem Massachusetts and Quebec Canada. A rectory attached to the church was occupied by the Parish Priest, Father Provost. He was a kind man who was devoted to the parish and parishioners.
In school, the study of the Roman Catholic Catechism was as important as the study of reading, writing and that other thing. The traditions, ceremonies and Holy Days of the Catholic faith ruled. The Sisters stressed that Christmas was a day to celebrate the Birth of The Savior, not the gratification of our craving for toys and gifts. Unfortunately, the Sisters were up against the ever-growing influence of television advertising. You know how that story turned out.
Most of the kids in our school were from families of the same socioeconomic strata; working class or lower middle class. Their fathers worked at Sylvania and other local businesses, or were carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cops or firefighters and the like. Some mothers had jobs outside the home; others worked time and a half taking care of their kids. There wasn’t much money to go around, but everyone seemed equally happy.
Christmas shopping then was mostly a local affair. We bought our tree at either Tougas’s on the corner of Mineral and Washington Streets or Hetnar’s Farm Stand on High Street. That is unless Pop found a free one at Grossman’s that needed a home. Town folk bought clothing from Hill’s or the Style Center on Market Street, toys, games, records, goldfish, parakeets, dolls and other girly things were had at Woolworth’s, and plastic models from Bill’s on South Main Street. The A&P in Lord’s Square would carry Christmas toys as well. They displayed them above the freezers and at the check-out stands. The local gas stations sold toys to loyal customers. Mostly models of tanker trucks from the gas supplier. You could get a Texaco, Jenny or Shell ten-wheeler with detachable trailer depending on where your folks did business.
On a few weekends before the big day, parents would take their kids down to meet Santa Claus at his hang out in the old Information Booth at the bottom of Town Hill. The downtown would be gaily decorated with garish Christmas lighting. I recall that the lights were shaped as bells, and colored a seasonal red, white and green. In contrast, there was a plain white star suspended from the power line crossing North Main near the Library which gave the night scene a sublime tranquility. When I joined the Police Department, I learned that the on-off switch was located in the station and was the same circuit that formerly turned on the call back light for the beat men of yore. The 4-12 desk officer would flip the lights on and the 12-8 cop would turn them off; unless they got distracted and forgot. In that event, someone would always call and remind us to stop watching television and do it.
People didn’t have credit cards then. Most paid cash for their purchases, used lay-away or saved up through weekly deposits into their Christmas club accounts available at the local banks. I knew many families that earmarked a few bucks each week into an envelope just for that purpose. Thrift was viewed as a virtue, if not a necessity. Few went into debt for Christmas then, and if money was short, so were the number of gifts under the tree.
Of course, kids liked to compare what they had received for Christmas gifts. You played with your friends toys and they played with yours. This often led to feelings of envy, jealousy, malice aforethought and the attendant “toy-shaming”. (I think I just penned a new class of victimization here.) Perhaps this was the genesis of the insanity surrounding modern day Christmas shopping. If so, let us celebrate yet another legacy of the baby-boom generation.
We couldn’t wait for Christmas vacation week. It seemed that there was usually a lot of snow on the ground. My cohorts didn’t go away on ski vacations or family trips to exotic locations. In fact, a ski trip was a ride to the slope owned by Tim Clark on Moulton Street in Hamilton or the one at Prospect Hill in Rowley. Some locals formed a ski club there known as the “Barrel Staves,” and taught many a young person the joys of swishing and booming. I lacked the coordination to handle anything more than the bunny slope and satisfied my Nordic inclinations instead by sledding on the hill behind the Tyler place on Jurdin Hill Road. I’d lug my aluminum Flying Disk up what seemed a thousand foot incline and breathlessly launch myself for a heart-stopping ride to the great abyss. The older boys would push their faster Flexible Flyers all the way to the frozen Ipswich River, to see how far across they could get. As I sped headlong at less than breakneck speed, I’d invariably flip over and crash into the underbrush lacerating cheeks and other body parts. Then, another trudge up the hill to repeat the process until exhaustion, blood loss, soaked clothing and frostbite ended the day. It was, as we liked to say then, “A Blast!”
We also built mammoth snow forts in strategic locations in the neighborhood for cover and concealment during brutal snowball fights. There was always one wise-ass who would load up his snowball with slush and ice for maximum damage. I caught one in the forehead once and went down hard. My brothers, being Irish and clannish, took it personally and exacted a bloody revenge on the little cretin. Later, everyone was the best of friends.
One memorable snow fort was located at the corner of Damon Avenue and Newmarch Street. We used the telephone pole as a center post and built a huge igloo that extended well into the street. It was by far an engineering marvel and would shelter a dozen or more snotty-nosed kids in relative comfort. Cars would be forced to the opposite side of the road to avoid crashing into the structure. Ultimately, it was determined to be a hazard to public safety after someone ratted us out to the cops. We were then forced to knock it down and clear the public way under the stern eye of the route officer.
But that was then and this is now. Ubiquitous electronic devices, smart phones, uber-organized games and activities and all the other trappings of modern life have, as far as I can see, pretty much zapped any fun out of being a kid. They are expected to act more like adults as the adults seem to grow more childish. In hind sight, I think the Nuns were right all along.
So, let me end by inviting you to please feel free to share your memories of your early Christmases in Ipswich and elsewhere. As we like to say, “There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met.” Merry Christmas.