The Parish Monthly Calendar for Christmas 1929, probably printed early, made no mention of the October stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression, but it did urge parishioners “WE ASK YOU TO BE MORE GENEROUS THAN EVER IN YOUR CHRISTMAS OFFERING.”
A year later, the pastoral letter observed that “The world is in dire need of a spirit of optimism today…” and a small news item in the Parish Monthly Calendar mentioned that the Girls’ Corps (a Girl Scout-like parish organization) had gathered donations to put together “thirty-four well-filled baskets” of food for the poor of the parish, distributed in December 1930.
Another year passed and the Parish Monthly Calendar reported that on December 20, 1931, “members from the Girls’ Corps with girls from the Commercial Class (girls not planning to go to High School) accepted donations at the door of the church” in the morning, then, held an afternoon Christ Child Party, in which “children and adults crowded the school auditorium and presented gifts of food and various articles of clothing for the poor in honor of the Christ-Child, the exemplar of poverty.” Ninety-six boxes of food thus gathered were then sent out to “the needy families of the parish” and “a consignment of clothing and shoes was distributed to the children whom the Sisters in school knew to be in need.”
Troubles continued. The January 1933 Parish Monthly Calendar reported that De Sales Night – the much-anticipated annual church party at the luxurious Bellevue-Stratford Hotel – was canceled “because of the stress of the times” and a less costly entertainment would be held, instead, at the Byrd Movie Theatre, 47th and Baltimore. A full-page article praised the efforts of all who had helped with, or donated at, the 1932 charitable Christmas Christ-Child Party (run by the St. Vincent de Paul Conference). That year “The need was much greater: so much so that one fears to mention the number of families in our parish that had to be helped…”
As the Great Depression settled in, through the 1930s, the threat of hunger and homelessness loomed very real for many parishioners.
What was in the charity boxes? They sound remarkably like Covid-era lockdown kits, consisting of bushels of potatoes; tins of vegetables and fruits; lots of dried beans (assorted kinds); onions; coffee; sugar; butter; milk (in tins); bread; jelly; and oatmeal. Scrapple and chicken were the meats. Oranges and a little hard candy were offered as a treat. No toys: gifts included stockings, underwear, blouses, shoes, and other items of clothing.
It doesn’t seem like a lot by today’s standards, but new underwear, shoes, or socks might have been welcomed by children in a large family, and potatoes with chicken could make a good Christmas dinner. People didn’t have as much, and they didn’t expect as much: outgrown clothing was “handed down” until it wore out; then the pieces were turned into quilts and other handcrafts. Moth-eaten sweaters could be unraveled and re-knitted into gloves. An old sock could be fashioned into a doll or stuffed animal, and a wooden grocery crate made a scooter or cart. Mothers were adept at turning unappetizing food scraps into satisfying meals; picky eaters went hungry.
Now, decades later, the wheel of fortune has turned again and some of those long-forgotten coping skills have been rediscovered as families learn to manage Covid lockdowns, unemployment, and shortages. We are more isolated because of contagion, but we do have internet and phones to connect, and snail-mail still works. And we are conscious that we need to be less wasteful in order to save our shared environment. Covid is a reminder, calling us back to core values. Looking at the Nativity scene, Pope Francis observed last year: “we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness….From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalized.”