Christmas past is never far away for Margaret Ann “Peg” Pierce and her twin sister, Elizabeth Jane Bindewald.
All the 81-year-old women have to do is look at Peg’s faded, red, handmade Christmas stocking, “Peggy” stitched in red on one side, “Ann” on the other. Three tiny bells are sewn to the bottom.
During the late 1930s into the 1940s, the stocking — along with 13 others — would hang near the fireplace on Christmas Eve inside the Harris residence on Arthur Street, in Schenectady’s Bellevue section.
To Peg and Elizabeth — then small children — that was Grandma and Grandpa Harris’ place. And it was the place for large family gatherings that began during the late afternoon of Christmas Eve and continued into Christmas night, when everyone went home.
“They were the best years of my life,” said Pierce, like her sister a resident of Schenectady’s Kingsway Community. “I’ve never been happier than growing up in that time period.”
Christmas brought the family together. Peg and Elizabeth, brother John and parents Cassius and Carolyn — “They were ‘Cash and Carrie,'” Pierce said — would always pack up bedding and Christmas presents and travel the short distance from their home on Concord Street to Arthur Street.
“Cash” sometimes wondered why the family just couldn’t visit Christmas morning. “My mother said ‘Nope. It’s tradition,'” Pierce said.
Grandma Margaret had a full house. Aunts, uncles and cousins were all in the mix and 14 people would move into the four-bedroom house for the celebration.
“The stockings were made when you were born,” Pierce said of her grandmother’s sewing project. “Or if you married somebody in the family. Everybody had stockings. Before you went to bed, each person would hang his or her stocking on this light rope over the fireplace.
“When we young people went to bed, the grown-ups put something in every stocking,” Pierce added. “You’d wake up in the morning and this stocking would just be full. You were so excited when you came downstairs.”
First, the kids had to go upstairs. That generally happened early Christmas Eve, and even the ascension to bedrooms came with a ritual.
“My grandmother had this little candleholder and they would let us light this little birthday candle and we’d go up the stairs with that candle,” Pierce said. “And we’d let it burn on the dresser until it burned out.”
The kids would listen to the adults continue their Christmas party on the first floor. There was a piano in the house, so sometimes there would be Christmas carols.
“We were 6 in 1942, and we got baby carriages,” Pierce remembered. “I had a wicker one with big wheels and my sister had a black one, which was more modern. We were so excited with them, even second-hand. We put miles on those carriages, with dolls in them.”
That was just the start of the day. Sausage and baked goods were part of breakfast, and dinner always meant turkey in the dining room. Puzzles and games were diversions during the afternoon.
Sometimes, men at the long Christmas party would insist they had to check the furnaces at their nearby homes. They checked the heaters, Pierce said, but they also used the time outside for a few nips of Christmas cheer. Grandma did not believe in alcohol around the holidays.
“When they came back, they were feeling pretty good,” Pierce said.
The gatherings ended by the time the kids were in the upper elementary grades. Memories of Christmas past will never end.
“The neighbors used to say they were so envious,” Pierce said. “They’d say, ‘We’d look in on Christmas Eve at the Harris’s and there would be cars, the driveway filled. We could see what a good time you were having in there.'”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124, [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.
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