Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas 1951: An Introduction

What follows (in a series of posts punctuated by images) is the latest version of a fictional account, "Christmas 1951."

It is set in 1951 mostly because of the age of the protagonist. It is his last Christmas before starting first grade. But it turns out to be a year for certain other innocences and connections with the past to end, or begin ending. The trolley he rides on will no longer be running by the next Christmas, for instance. Even the city buses will be gone by decade's end.

In 1951, television was becoming part of life. Among the first childhood heroes were Howdy Doody, Captain Video and the cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd played Hopalong in movie serials, but hung on to the TV rights. He added scenes and made new episodes, and became the first TV western hero. He also became the first to have lots of products available with his name and image. But even so, there were few if any television commercials for children's toys in 1951 (though lots of premiums you could get by sending in boxtops or the inner seal of an Ovaltine jar). That would change in a big way in a couple of years. There were no chain toy stores, either, and there wouldn't be for quite awhile.

But television was beginning to provide children with narratives, with ways of organizing the life we observed and experienced, and ways to act and think about our actions, in addition to what we learned from parents and family, and later the widening circles of peers and neighborhood, school, church and town, etc. That's beginning to show up in this story.

In western Pennsylvania where this story takes place, it was a time when extended families and ethnic identities were still strong, particularly among Italians. The family is basically my own, and the families of my family. Flora Severini, my mother, was born in Italy, but her younger sister and brother were born in the U.S. My father's family origins are more obscure, but his father and grandfather (first generation American) had been coal miners, and that side of our family had weaker ties to ethnic traditions, though they kept the Christmas ritual of sharing the kind of bread used as the host in the Catholic Mass, which is probably Polish. No one seems to know where that side of the family came from, but Poland had been partioned several times and borders in eastern Europe were fluid, so it's all pretty mysterious still. My father's mother (who died years before I was born) was not Polish, with roots in Slovakia I believe.
The fictitious events and streams of consciousness are informed by memories (mostly but not wholly my own) and by knowledge acquired later, especially about food, games and other rituals of the Christmas season. It's part of a larger narrative, which at this point is seen through the eyes of the young protagonist. That's reflected in the vocabulary as much as anything.  But this version is detailed and not really edited as part of a larger piece, to preserve as much as possible of times and places gone by, and the people in them.

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