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Ghost of Christmas Past



The fickle calendar of the eons turns over yet again, and the time known as Christmas is back upon us once more. In the center of the holiday lendings and borrowings, obligations social and financial, and general furor pour headlines of blood-bringing bombs and unsavory celebrity sex. Step back. Breathe. Think. Were things ever like this?

Turn back that hurrying calendar, why not to late December 1903, a round-numbered century gone?

Headlines hint at a hard-hearted perspective firmly in place on Christmas: A Pennsylvania train wreck -- folks in a modern haste -- killed 64, and looters were on the scene. "Before any of the rescuers arrived, they had secured considerable booty." The Japanese were mobilizing troops for "Corea," as were the Russians, and the British fleet was mobilizing to get between them. And in Paris, it was finally announced that there would be a civilian retrial for the unhappy and innocent Captain Dreyfus.

The weather was familiar. Rain early Christmas morning, with lows of 50 and afternoon highs of around 73.

The movers and shakers were busy moving and shaking. On Christmas Eve, school superintendent Warren Easton visited McDonogh No. 9, where he presented the principal with a golden-head umbrella and a "pretty hand-sachel."

Mrs. Frank T. Howard and her sons were guests of the school named for her late husband and thrilled the kindergarten class with their gift of a "magnificent talking machine." The kids responded to such high technology with the school yell, to wit: "Rah! Rah! Rah! Good work and pen. We're Frank T. Howard No. 1. Rah, rah, rah! For our good friends. May their prosperity never end."

Prosperity must have been on the mind of municipal treasurer McGrath, who announced on Christmas Eve he would pay city rolls today instead of the usual end of the month because of "the necessity for heads of families to have the means to properly celebrate Christmas."

Proper celebration includes the following menu items suggested in the daily newspaper's "Women's World" column for a (very) partial holiday list: fried croakers with Sauce a la Tartare, Bayou Cook oysters, boiled Spanish mackerel, vol-au-vent of pigeons, broiled snipe on toast, and bonbons a la Creole ("too common to need explanation"). Plus the usual culinary suspects ...

"But of all things considered, it is by no means an extravagant menu and will be found far more acceptable than those which call for an elaborate expenditure of money."

At the Soldier's Home on Bayou St. John, the director was grateful for the turkey and nuts, yet noted "but the old fellows are apt to get morose and to think that those on the outside are forgetting them."

Perhaps so; there were many distractions. On Christmas Eve night, there were 10,000 packages still waiting to be shipped from the Southern Pacific office on Union Street. Canal Street merchants were saying it was the best Christmas in 20 years. One had sold 35 suits that week and said, "No, I don't know the secret, except everybody seems to have money."

On Christmas Eve, citizens poured into the streets "blowing horns, rattling rattles, ringing bells. ... Young men and their sisters and sweethearts, family parties and even more sedate men and women and urchins and little people of all conditions and degrees kept the air split with the most deafening sounds."

One enterprising newshound interviewed the gypsy-camp cluster of visiting actors and entertainers to get their impressions of Christmas and the Crescent City. One answered, "The people you meet seem to epitomize the idea: 'Come day, go day. God send Sunday.' ... Simply that here, as nowhere else in this country, people like to live, not to exist, and get out of life all that is in it."

Sam Hildreth didn't quite get it all. His fine filly Witful comfortably won the 1-mile Christmas Handicap under 121 pounds at the Fair Grounds. But a track gossip noted that owner Hildreth didn't bet a dollar on her, "but Albert Simons and the combination known as the Hildreth crowd went down strong on her and reaped rich benefits."

Christmas is about more than rich benefits.

"Unfortunately we sometimes lose that peace which God has given us and we make ourselves unhappy by falling into error which makes us believe that peace and happiness are alone to be found in the enjoyment of wealth, of honors, of pleasures ..." This from the Christmas mass at St. Louis Cathedral celebrated by Archbishop Placide Louis Chappelle. More: "Man is great only as his heart is pure and his conscience peaceful."

Finally, on the front page, a story out of New York about a man condemned to die in the electric chair for four murders. The murderer told the jury he bore no grudge: "I wish to say that I don't feel that way in the slightest and all I can say is, I wish you a merry Christmas."

If he can, I can. Merry Christmas.

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