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Christmas in Annapolis in the mid-20th century

| December 14, 2017
Rams Head

With Christmas just around the corner, my memory immediately flashes back to Main Street. For, it was not only the center of my world as a youngster, from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, Main Street, including the City Dock area, was the epicenter of Christmas in Annapolis.

Everything about Christmas resided on Main Street. It was where you bought your gifts and your turkey and fixings for Christmas dinner, and it was where celebrations and decorations announced the season.

I knew it well, since I lived in the midst of it all at 183 Main Street—in a third-floor apartment that still exists and where I grew up from age four until I went off to college at the University of Maryland. The large front windows of that apartment were not only a view to Main Street, they were the windows on the world as I knew it.

Just before Christmas, I could look out those windows and see a man on a big truck with an extended ladder, affixing garland-like decorations to the buildings up and down the street. These huge strands, decorated with fake snowflakes, big Christmas balls and artificial snow, hung from one side of the street to the other side, creating a holiday canopy the length of Main Street. The storefronts were also covered in garlands.

The city Christmas tree stood at the foot of Main Street above the Amoco gas station that was located above the city dock, where the traffic circle is today. The tree was in line with the corner of Main Street and Market Space, opposite Murphy’s 5 and 10 Cent Store, now the home of Buddy’s Crabs and Ribs restaurant.

Like most youngsters, Christmas was a wonderful, exciting time for me. My family and I would open presents in the morning, then, after breakfast, walk down Main street half a block to my grandparents’ apartment, which was also on the third floor, above what is now Chick & Ruth’s Delly. Back then, it was Bernstein’s ice cream shop. I’d get another present or two from my grandparents.

Remembering presents, there was one I will never forget, which I mention it in my book, “Memoirs of a Main Street Boy: Growing up in America’s Ancient City.”

It was in 1946, when I was thirteen. Gathered with my mom and dad in the front room of our apartment, I opened several boxes under the tree—only to find a sweater, shirt and some socks. I tried to hide my disappointment, but I’m sure it was quite apparent. I cheered up when my mom said she had forgotten a gift in the hall. I opened the door and magic happened. There stood a brand new, apple red Schwinn bike with a basket on the handle bars. It seemed to sparkle, like a diamond might to a newly engaged young lady.

The bike was not only a great surprise, but also evidence of my mother’s money management ability and devotion to her only child. Starting at the end of 1945, she had put away a dollar a week for 50 weeks to afford that bike, which she bought at a Main Street store.

In those days, you could find everything you wanted on Main Street—clothing of all kinds, furniture and bedding, cosmetics, books, groceries, a butcher, jewelry, cameras, phonographs and records, refrigerators, restaurants and bars galore. Of course, there were banks, plus a hotel, The Maryland Inn, and gas, oil and auto service at the Amoco station. You could even pay your gas and electric bill at the BG&E office on Main Street. We bought our Christmas tree at a lot next to the city dock.

To refresh my memory, I looked at some Christmas ads for Main Street stores in the Evening Capital of December 1944, when I was in the fifth grade. An ad from the Columbia Jewelry Company at 138 Main Street, where years later I would buy my wife’s and my wedding rings, was headlined: “There something about a diamond that makes Merry Christmas last a lifetime!” Among the ad’s offerings: a diamond solitaire in a 14-carat setting—for $77.50, and you could pay for it on weekly terms.

Taubman’s store at 149 Main Street advertised toys for kids, such as dolls and animals for 89 cents, a hobby horse for $2.98 and boxing gloves for $3.95.

Hopkins Furniture Company at 123 Main Street advertised an easy chair and ottoman plus a smoking table and a lamp for $59.95, as the ad said: “A special low price just for father’s Christmas.”

Also on that Evening Capital page were reminders that a war was on, including a headline, “O type blood needed for daily plane trips to battlefields,” to a promotion from the U.S. Victory Waste Paper campaign to save paper for the war effort, “Waste Paper Strafes Nazi Front Lines.”

When I was a youngster, carolers would stroll Main Street as part of their neighborhood singing, and Christmas music would emanate from some of the stores.

Bing Crosby was almost synonymous with Christmas back then. He certainly was the voice of Christmas. In all, he recorded more than 60 Christmas songs. Not surprisingly, my last name often provoked the question, “Are you related to Bing Crosby?” I don’t get that much anymore, but Bing Crosby does evoke Christmas memories. In a 1942 movie titled “Holiday Inn,” he introduced Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas.” The song has such longevity that I bet it is playing on some radio somewhere right now. “White Christmas” showed up again in a Bing Crosby movie of the same name in 1955.

The Christmas songs and celebrations of my youth would have been a surprise to our Annapolis ancestors. Many of the Puritan founders of Annapolis—who came to the Severn River around 1650—did not celebrate Christmas, finding it culturally taboo. In fact, some Puritans, especially in New England, associated Christmas celebrations with pagan rituals and, in some northern states, Christmas celebrations were illegal in parts of the 17th century.

It was not until after the Civil War that Christmas became the festival high point of the American calendar. The day became a federal holiday in 1870 under President Ulysses S. Grant, in an attempt to unite North and South.

Despite the Puritans’ attempts to reign it in, Christmas celebrations did happen during colonial times. Gentry in Annapolis would throw small parties to mark the occasion and local Catholics treated it as a high holiday on the church calendar.

An important colonial Christmas event played out in the Annapolis State House on December 23, 1783, an historic day in our country. As I recall in my book, George Washington arrived at the State House shortly before noon. Leaving his horse on the hill, he entered the portico doorway.

Washington entered the Old Senate Chamber and took his seat before the legislators and the galleries full of Maryland and Annapolis dignitaries, including ladies in the gallery above the entrance door. The congressmen remained seated and kept their hats on, not as a sign of disrespect, but either a custom from British Parliament or an anti-monarchial gesture symbolizing Congress’ authority (in Europe, in the presence of royalty, commoners stood and doffed their hats).

Washington arose with speech in hand, and contemporary accounts say that hand shook violently, and his voice was hoarse with emotion. His speech took only about three minutes. He ended his military life with, among others, these words: “Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence.”

When he finished his speech, Washington withdrew from his pocket the document that appointed him Commander in Chief, dated June 15, 1775, and returned it to the presiding officer of the Congress. One witness recalled the scene: “The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.”

Following the resignation ceremony, Washington bid goodbye to each member of Congress and, having had his bags packed earlier, headed for the door and his horse. Accompanied by this friend, Maryland Governor William Paca, he headed to the South River Ferry below Annapolis, on route to his beloved Mount Vernon to celebrate Christmas with his wife, Martha.

Washington left Annapolis that day just in time, not only because it was almost Christmas Eve, but because of the weather. Thomas Mifflin, president of Congress, wrote to Washington on December 28th from Annapolis, concerned because, as he wrote, “We have had no account, from the Potomac, since your departure, and have been under great apprehension that the journey was disagreeable and difficult, from the snow which fell on Wednesday night.”

But, despite the storm, Washington was home for Christmas, safe and sound, to celebrate with his family, as many of us will do later this month, celebrating Christmas in Annapolis.

Rams Head

Category: OPINION, Post To FB

About the Author - Ralph Crosby

A native Annapolitan, Mr. Crosby is founder and chairman of Crosby Marketing, a national advertising/public relations firm headquartered in Annapolis.

Mr. Crosby’s book, “Memoirs of a Main Street Boy: Growing Up in America’s Ancient City,” is available at local bookstores (Annapolis Bookstore, Back Creek Books and Old Fox Books) or online at Amazon.com.

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