Postcards from the Past: Christmas in Hyattsville Past
BY PEGGY DEE — Unlike the Christmas season of today, which begins the day after Halloween, Christmas in the early days of Hyattsville truly began the day after Thanksgiving. Mothers would gather up their children, walk down to the streetcar access below Route 1, and board the car for downtown Washington.
In those days, there were several large department stores in that area, and each one took great pride in decorating its windows for the holidays. The families would travel along F and G Streets and down 7th Street to see each window. Inside each department store, the mothers and children marveled at the arrival of Santa Claus in a lovely setting of Toyland. After a delicious hot dog or hamburger lunch at one of the stand-up lunch counters of the downtown five-and-dime stores, the exhausted families took the Branchville streetcar back to Hyattsville.
As the big day drew near, the volume of Christmas cards was so heavy that the Post Office hired temporary mail carriers, many of whom were college students. It was not unusual to see your regular mailman in the morning making his daily round and a temporary hire delivering more mail in the afternoon.
Many families had open houses, where people would go to admire the decorations of their neighbors and enjoy a delicious cup of hot chocolate. In those days, the neighbors tell me, the residents did not decorate as extensively as they do today. Colored lights outlined the outside of the houses and a few Nativity scenes were spotted on a few lawns. Some families chose to put up the tree on Christmas Eve after the kids were safely tucked away in their beds.
Listening to the caroling just outside your door was a special treat on a cold, windswept December evening. Several churches conducted midnight services on Christmas Eve and, no matter how cold the night, the churchgoers walked home. Many of the original neighbors on my street remember the Nativity scene outside the city building on Jefferson Street. Seeing Santa Claus waving at everyone from a top of a fire engine that traveled throughout the city was a special treat for the kids.
My neighbors along 41st Avenue relayed to me that each Christmas morning the families went door-to-door to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Plates of homemade cookies and gingerbread were passed around. If we were fortunate enough to have snow the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Hamilton Street between 42nd and 40th was completely blocked off so the kids could try out their new sleds. Much like our practice of today, our city sponsored a tree lighting ceremony, with carolers and a visit from the man himself, Santa Claus.
The holiday celebrations continued throughout the week. A few of the neighbors would host house parties on New Year’s Eve, where those attending could safely walk home. Baked ham and mashed potatoes with black-eyed peas and pumpkin and mince meat pies was the usual menu for New Year’s Day.
These celebrations in our dear city created memories that will last forever.