As we celebrate this Christmas, I wondered how much differences there are in ones separated by centuries?
At Christmas 1821 as Missouri celebrated becoming the 24th state, new arrivals helped the population to reach 11 million as well as introduced new traditions, such as the one started in Germany in the 16th century of a Christmas tree decorated with edibles that was first documented in the U.S. in Lancaster, Pa., in 1821.
At Christmas 1921, the 100 million residents scattered throughout 48 states were suffering shortages of many things, including food, caused by World War I, which ended in 1918.
Just as the U.S. was attempting to rebound, a case of what would be known as the “Spanish flu” was discovered in Kansas. In two short years it would infect an estimated 500 million people with 17 million to 50 million deaths (some estimates put it as high as 100 million deaths), making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history. World War I made it difficult to have a more precise number of deaths.
Into this setting, the politicians thrusted the 18th Amendment, which began Prohibition, effective Jan. 16, 1920, which incentivized law breaking.
Many of the relatively recent arrivals also had a lingering loyalty to their relatives left behind in the “old country.” Consider, for example, my grandfather John Zepke’s parents migrating from Germany in 1895 and settling in Oaklyn, N.J.
In 1912, he and his Irish wife gave birth to the first born American Zepke: my father, who they named George Washington. There must have been emotional turmoil as while the Germans fought the Irish during World War I, John worked in the Philadelphia shipyard making ships to fight the country of his ancestors.
In nearby Camden, in 1919, Englishman Grover Cleveland Stackhouse and his Scottish wife Eleanor gave birth to my mother June. The end of World War I was the end of John’s and Grover’s jobs. Imagine their families struggling to make a Christmas for the nine-year-old George and two-year-old June in 1921. What effect did their struggles have on George and June?
Fortunately, the St. Augustine Record gave us a clue by publishing letters to Santa Claus from children in 1921.
St. Augustine was a small town along the Atlantic Ocean just south of Jacksonville. These letters demonstrated the shortage of food, such as candy, nuts, fruit and even a shortage of oranges in an orange growing state. The children wanted to read books and play with dolls although the one asking for a wash tub broke my heart. I found it illustrative that the children felt that Santa would be influenced by their behaviors, which I highlighted by italics, and their relationships with Santa, which I boldfaced.
All began with “Dear Santa Claus,” and some are abbreviated due to space requirements.
“I have been a bad boy this year, but I hope you will forgive me, and bring me a blond doll named Marie, and a brunette named Gertrude, and bring a cat, and some fruits and nuts.” Closing with “your friend.”
“I am going to try to be a good little boy and go to school every day until Xmas so please bring me these few things, a paint set, a ball and glove, a storybook, a jigger and anything else that is good for a little boy 6 years old. Please do not forget my candy and bring Nellie a ball. Good-bye Santa.”
“Mother says it has been one year since I wrote you, a long time for little boys to be good (we’ve tried to be). So please Santa bring us each a cowboy suit, a fire truck, several storybooks, some marbles, a ball, a knife, some games, and anything else you think we might like. James only wants an electric train. Oh! Santa, I can’t begin to tell you all that my sister wants, so just bring her everything a little girl should have.”
“I am a little girl only 3 years old and I have been good this year. I don’t go to school, but my daddy has taught me how to spell my name so if you will bring me what I ask you for Santa, I will spell it for you when you come by.” After asking for a doll and a washboard and tub and some clothespins and line to hang the dolly’s clothes, she wrote, “Well, I will close, Santa, hoping you will find where I live and be careful and don’t get hurt when you come to my house.”
“Please give me a big doll, dressed up pretty, a go-cart for all my dolls, and plenty of oranges, nuts, and candy. I am trying to be a good girl. From your little girl. P.S. Please put a big ball in my stocking and some dishes.”
“Just a few lines to let you know what I want for Xmas. I want a bicycle, a storybook, and some candy and fruit. Santa don’t forget my little nephew Harold Masters. Santa now bring me what I want. Good-bye.”
“Will you please bring me a doll, a go-cart, a little truck, two tablets, two lead pencils and some nice fruit so as my mamma and daddy will have something to enjoy also. Thanking you dear Santa, I remain your little girl.”
At Christmas 2021, the 330 million residents scattered throughout 50 states were suffering shortages of food caused by rising prices from politicians limiting oil production, from the ramifications of a bizarre exit from Afghanistan and a recognized pandemic and a yet unrecognized, but more deadly, Fentanyl pandemic.
Into this setting the politicians incentivized lawbreaking by thrusting restrictions on enforcing the law during any of the estimated 574 riots-looting-arsons in multiple cities. Migrants from Germany, Ireland, England, Scotland must be vaccinated unless they join the crowd of 7,000 a day walking in from Mexico. How much difference do you see from 1921?
The century from 1921 to 2021 saw families, including mine, dilute the lessons learned in 1921 as each generation adjusts them based on its own experiences and circumstances.
At Christmas 2021, I have no examples of children’s’ Santa letters, but my grandchildren’s list reflects the absence of food items although baking cookies is of interest: no marbles, no electric trains and, thank goodness, no washboards. Requests for balls have become more specific, such as a football or basketball.
Lists have included a few books, computer games and clothing replacing dolls and stuffed animals as the girls’ become teenagers. No bicycles as they already have them. Perhaps a sign of prosperity. I have not heard any confessions about their behaviors or how they describe their relationships with Santa.
There is hope for Christmas 2121 as long as the spirit of Christmas continues to inspire children to believe in the values offered by a force greater than any human being.
Brent E. Zepke
The author lives in Santa Barbara.
Brent E. Zepke is an attorney, arbitrator and author who lives in Santa Barbara. Formerly he taught at six universities and numerous professional conferences. He is the author of six books: “One Heart-Two Lives,” “Legal Guide to Human Resources,” “Business Statistics,” “Labor Law,” “Products and the Consumer” and “Law for Non-Lawyers.”