My sister’s room and  memories of Christmas

My father was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1891. At least he thought that was the year. They have fires in Chelsea, and his birth records went up in one of them.

His father, for whom I am named, was in the junk business – a recycler before that word was invented. He told me that when he was a boy they used to go by horse and wagon across Massachusetts, and then into New Hampshire. Somehow, they found Claremont, and moved there in 1900. They were the poorest family in a poor town.

I came along in 1939. I haven’t lived there in a very long time, but I hold clear memories of Christmas in Claremont more than half a century ago, in the 1940s and 50s. Back then, unlike today, every storefront had a store behind it. Festive lights adorned Pleasant Street, and shoppers from all of Sullivan County came to shop on Friday nights. We were Jewish, along with 50 or so other families. In a town of 12,000, that put us in a pretty small minority.

We understood that it wasn’t our holiday, but at least some of us wanted it to be. Maybe Jews observed Hanukkah in those days, but I don’t remember much of that. It was either Christmas or nothing.

In school, of course, it was Christmas. We all sang carols, and if any of the Jewish kids felt uneasy about praising Jesus, we managed to put it to one side. Everyone knew we were not celebrating the religious holiday, but no one told us we couldn’t enjoy the spirit of the season along with everyone else. After all, the songwriter Irving Berlin wrote “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and he was Jewish.

Here, a brief digression. I played junior league basketball and named my team the “Brown Bombers” after my hero, heavyweight champ Joe Louis. The irony of the fact that Claremont had only one black family (now that’s a minority!) never occurred to me. Anyway, I saw the other kids go to the foul line and cross themselves before shooting. It seemed to work for them, so I started doing the same thing. I thought that was how you made foul shots. Eventually, the coach took me aside and explained that particular fact of life to me. So, I stopped crossing myself, which really hadn’t done me much good anyway.

Back to Christmas. My sister wanted a tree, and our indulgent father said she could have one, but in her bedroom. That was OK, since she happened to have her own fireplace. So we had the tree and the lights, stockings and Santa, hidden away upstairs so no one knew.

Eventually, my sister changed her mind, so we stopped having a Christmas tree. I remember thinking it was the right thing to do – it’s not our holiday. But I missed it for a long time. Being with my parents and sister, opening our presents – it was special and memorable. Christmas at the Steinfields, second floor, my sister’s bedroom.

I’m glad we had those Christmases together. My father died in 1957 … on Christmas Day.

Earlier versions of this article appeared in December 2007 and in 2010. Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner is the Boston law firm, Prince, Lobel Glovsky & Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.

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