Jolly Old St. Nick – Celebrating Christmas in Galveston in days gone by


The celebration of Christmas underwent quite a transition during the life of Margaret Edythe Young from an essentially quiet religious and familial observance to a large public festival. There is always a dichotomy between these and the more commercial any celebration becomes the more the religious aspects seem to be diminished – it is both easier and more profitable to party than it is to pray and the seeming antipathy of so many who pray to any form of celebration only serves to make sure that they are left out of the party. Sometimes, maybe by the special grace of the season, we find a balance and by going back to the Christmas Day issues of the Galveston Daily News and illustrating the entry with even more Christmas cards received by MEY we are going to try to look at that balance in the two decades either side of 1900.

The Galveston Daily News used to be a cross between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in terms of their reporting of national and international news as well as a summary of events across Texas and in-depth reporting of local events. In addition there was business reporting of the banking, stock market, agricultural markets and shipping news that made it indispensible reading for members of any trade. On December 25, 1884 there were two columns of Christmas news on page 5 the gist of which was summarized by the following, “No public demonstrations of any character mark the advent of the present Christmas, and outside of the usual church services and family reunions little of a public character is to be chronicled to mark the occasion. At the Catholic churches  or at least at St. Mary’s, St. Patrick’s and the Sacred Heart, solemn midnight mass was held, commemorative of the birth of the Infant Nazarene, and appropriate services will be held in the different churches today.”

By 1888 THE NEWS is giving advice with its remarking of the Holiday, “It is needless to remind the readers of THE NEWS that today is Christmas. Every man, woman and child in Christendom knows it. While some through a benign providence will be reminded of it more forcibly than others, yet all, even the unfortunate, are made in some manner to feel its joyous presence. The streets, particularly Market street, and the holiday stores especially, were crowded all day yesterday and up to an unusually late hour last night with throngs |of people making their final purchases for Christmas. The sales of holiday goods were numerous, the purchasers generally were characterized a spirit of generosity, and in many instances extravagance. Many in their eagerness to conform to the customs of the occasion overlooked the practical necessities, and it is safe to say that retrenchment and economy will be in order for several weeks to come in certain quarters where many went beyond their actual means to meet what they considered the requirements of the occasion. Many in making Christmas purchases seem to overlook the fact that Christmas presents are but a token of love and good will, and that the Intrinsic value of  a present is nothing when the gift comes from a friend. Whatever of extravagance Christmas brings, however inappropriate the gifts, it is Christmas after all, a day of general good cheer, a time for universal happiness and rejoicing. While no public receptions of any character have been announced for the day, the number of private family reunions and select social gatherings are numerous, and the citizen who has not tuned his appetite for the enjoyment of a good Christmas dinner is indeed unfortunate.” but the story still doesn’t appear until page 8 and is now a single column right up against a full column extolling the virtues of Christian Science.

from page 1 of the Galveston Daily News, December 25, 1892

By 1892 THE NEWS was carrying advertisements for Christmas entertainment on page 1 but the rest of the page was still dedicated to world news and national headlines.

Still answering letter from a peppermint chair at a peppermint desk

Holiday excursion rates from 1896

By 1896 families were traveling, by train, as far a Houston to spend the Holiday with family and friends and THE NEWS also carried a report on the resumption of the North German Lloyd Steamship Company resuming service from Bremen to Galveston where immigrants could purchase their fare for $34.00 and be much closer to their Texas and other Southern and Western destinations than those landing in New York and forced to have exorbitant train fares to get to their final destinations.

In 1900 Galveston was still recovering from the storm and although the first story tells of how they were dealing with part of the recovery the second shows how the spirit of the Island had kept on going with the same spirit that had allowed them to overcome so many difficulties. “Santa Claus came through a window, amid the clapping of hands, the tooting of horns and other evidences of juvenile approval.  As if by magic the huge Christmas tree that occupied a conspicuous place on the center platform burst forth in a blaze of light and all was merry.. And for two hours, from 5 until 7 o’clock last evening the festivities were on and no one was forgotten.  Among the children who were there were those who, in the storm, lost father and mother. But there were people present whose pleasure it was to look to the wants of just such cases. For the moment the orphan forgot his condition: forgot the trouble through which he had so recently passed: forgot everything except that he was in fairyland, surrounded by the good spirits he had so often heard a mother read about.

It was the same old story and the same old din that made Christmas Eve a night of nights on Market Street last night. It is the time-honored custom to celebrate Christmas Eve by the population turning out en masse in the evening and parading through the streets of the retail district. If the celebration were confined to the promenading of the cosmopolitan aggregation of humanity it would be but a tame affair. But such is not the case for you are not in it for a minute unless you can produce a long tin horn, an old tin pan or some more hideous and nerve-racking minstrel instrument  to make life disturbing for your neighbor.”

In the 1904 edition on page 5 our old friends, the Knights of Pythias in Houston, get an extended story for their efforts in distributing over 2,000 gifts to children in the top column left while the three top columns right were given to the leading cold medicine of the day in copy the displaced Santa from his sleigh.

Sex appeal and Santa's Sleigh selling cold medicine in 1904

On page 16 THE NEWS reports on one of the barometers of success for Galveston merchants and how important the Christmas trade was becoming for the economy, “this year is the busiest Christmas in the history of tho Galveston post office. This means that the business: this year shows a marked increase over all previous records. This is pleasant to hear and pleasant to think about, because it means that Galveston is a happy community; that her people have entered into The spirit of the great day, and that they are buying gifts for their relatives and friends abroad, and are sending them through the mails. If the reader stops to reflect it might occur to him that this means a great deal of money has been spent in Galveston for Christmas gifts; that the Galveston merchants have enjoyed a good trade, and that this money will be circulated in Galveston. Because this increase in the registered mails is outgoing matter. The records have not been compiled as yet to show the amount of Increase in all mail matter, and can not be computed until after Christmas, but the, registered mail shows a decided increase up to yesterday, with another very busy day to come. The purchases are going out at the rate of more than a carload per day.”

Getting around Galveston in 1908

By 1908 Galvestonians were getting around the island in electric street cars and although the advertisement has nothing to do with Christmas it does show how life was lived there.

Moving on to 1912 after reporting on the bells and whistles of the crowds on Christmas Eve THE NEWS goes on to describe a situation that proves that your sister-in-law may not have invented re-gifting, “There may be other presents before the day Is over. Each man In the family has his supply of neckties, socks, pipes and cigars, and perhaps a few other things. Some of the men have more ties than they will need during 1913, and if they do like some of their friends have been known to do, they will hold a few of them back and make them useful as gift’s on some future occasion of gift giving. The, cigars will also be useful to pass out among friends.”  Gone were the days of no public observance, “Today will be observed much as have Christmases in the past. There will be general suspension of business. The holiday spirit will prevail throughout the city. There will be the usual Christmas social gatherings, dances and fraternity affairs. Special Christmas dinners will be served at the John Sealy Hospital, St. Mary’s Infirmary, Galveston Orphan’s home, Home for Homeless Children, St. Mary’s Catholic Orphanage, Letitia Rosenberg Home for Women and also the county children. Special Christmas dinners will be served at Fort Crockett for Uncle Sam’s coast artillery men and aboard government vessels and other floating equipment in the harbor.” But THE NEWS was still willing to dispense medical advise – if only in the form of advertisements –

By 1916 Europe had been at war for two years, the Port of Galveston was working around the clock 7 days a week, not every one had dinner at home, not every one celebrated the holiday with a large family. Now places like the Galvez became a home from home for families without children and for the young who chose to celebrate late into the evening. Things in the churches were changing as well as shown by the headline on page 8, Regular Services in Churches Give Way to Special Programs – Children Take Part in Ceremonies and Special Music Numbers Are Presented which is followed by a story of, Yuletide Ceremonies Are A Heritage From Many Nations, and finally that, Arrangements Complete for Community Christmas Tree – Giant Fir Will be Lighted at 6 O’Clock at Ball High School Square; All Present Will Sing Carols Led by Chorus of 600. This last item is of the greatest importance since we now have a civic organization – the Rotarians – hosting a ceremony with religious and secular carols on the same program it is difficult to discern where the one begins and the other ends.

By 1920 Christmas had, at last, made page 1 of THE NEWS although the cartoon hardly speaks to the religious nature of the holiday and the headlines about the great relief being provided to Europe directed by Herbert Hoover is more about collective charity. Even though the annual Christmas Tree Lighting Festival at Ball High School had been co-opted with Monsignor Kirwin leading the prayer and the carols limited to religious themes interspersed with patriotic songs it still must have been very convenient for CEO [Christmas and Easter Only] churchgoers to sidestep while they backslid. And for those who did not even care to make the pretense of attending any sort of ceremony there was the new diversion of the motion pictures:

And there was no need to stop and visit with friends or family for dinner, even less to be bothered with a meal at home, when you could dine in fashion at the Galvez.

Remembering that the island city was first and foremost a port THE NEWS was able to report on page 8 that, “The entire Galveston waterfront will observe Christmas today. So far as could be ascertained last night there will be no ships working on Christmas Day at all. Longshoremen, office men and officials of the various steamship lines will celebrate, the day as it has not been celebrated since the beginning of the war. For the first time since 1914 tonnage has been free enough to allow a little leeway to the agents handling the vessels.  No considerable amount of business was done yesterday. The Christmas spirit seemed paramount in all offices visited, and no one showed, a great tendency to talk business.
Vessels in the harbor will observe the day in varying styles. On some of the ships elaborate dinners will be served to the crew. On others members of the crew will be given
leave for the day. while the United States gunboats in the harbor have announced special programs that include not only a big Christmas dinner with all the trimmings but amateur theatricals, and other amusements for members of the crew. All local offices, including the customs house, will be closed throughout the entire day.”

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