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On Holidays in Germantown, Then and Now by George Stern

December 24, 2013

When I was a boy growing up in a row home on Pleasant St. in East Mt. Airy, some neighbors suggested that, for Christmas, we all install alternating green and red lights outside our doors. My parents hesitated, since celebrating Christmas was not exactly on our Jewish agenda. However, not wanting to destroy the pattern, they decided to conform –and to simply leave that light up all year. Fortunately, our assigned color was green. And for the many years we remained in that house, it was easily identified at night: “Just look for the green light,” we used to tell guests.

 Recently I spent several hours in the Pat Henning Library and Archives of Historic Germantown, poking around in the Germantown Crier and its predecessor, The Beehive, looking for anecdotes about past Christmas celebrations in Greater Germantown. 

 Two themes struck me. First, the commercialization of Christmas was already quite pronounced almost a hundred years ago. An article in the December 1929 Beehive began:

 In these modern times no holy day has been more traduced than Christmas. Instead of observing in a joyful, yet dignified way the birthday of a great man, when truths of the greatest significance should be taught, it has become a season of perplexity and worry to many, while others give but a passing thought, or none at all, to the real meaning of the day.

The article went on to talk about “The Real Meaning of Christmas” as taught to Indians in 1701, including the religiously significant Biblical verse, “God so loved the world (or man, sic) that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever receiveth Him should not perish but should have everlasting life.”

Perhaps the lament of the author was brought on by an in the December 1927 Beehive that gushed: “All the Germantown kiddies are invited to call and meet the ‘King of Gifts’ [Santa Claus] in person. Toytown is overflowing with Dolls, Toys and Novelties of all kinds. Don’t miss it.” Many readers might recall the department stores on Chelten Avenue, one of which placed this ad in the December 1955 issue of the Crier: “Enter into the Spirit of Christmas Thru the Doorway of C.A. Rowell Germantown…”

 A second theme also jumped out at me. The notion that “all the kiddies” were invited to Toytown, and the ease with which the first article I cited apparently presumed that everyone reading it would agree with its religious sentiments, reminded me how easy it is for people to simply assume that their ways and their beliefs are universally shared. Even in 2013, when we have learned to be more sensitive to America’s diversity, many of us – maybe most or indeed all of us – are not immune from expressing “innocent” notions that in fact marginalize others.

My parents, way back in the early ‘50s, figured out a creative way to honor both our neighbors’ good intentions and our own desire – and right – not to be like them in every aspect of our lives.

Today’s Northwest Philadelphia is a pretty comfortable place for almost anyone of good intentions to put down roots. Whether you celebrated Chanukah already or are looking forward to Christmas and Kwanzaa, Solstice, or just the New Year, I hope these weeks will prove to be times of happiness, enlightenment, and communal strength.

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