This column is a special feature from Conshy native Beth Leary Hegedus. Thank you for sharing……
“Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow, and oh so mellow;
Deep in December our hearts should remember
And follow….follow, follow, follow, follow.”
(from “The Fantasticks” – Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones)
Christmas in Conshohocken isn’t something that just sounds quaint…it was. Looking back, growing up in Conshohocken was something special. It was (and is still) a quintessential small town where your neighbors were your friends and a pleasant hello met you wherever you went, especially at Christmas.
It’s impossible to recall all of the memories, but here are a few that I’ll never forget…
I’ll always remember that Christmas in Conshy started early. Not because there was a rush to get all your shopping done; but instead, there was a rush to get that holiday feeling going. After Thanksgiving dinner, all of the kids – and adults too – would be anxiously anticipating the lights on Fayette Street to spring to life. The red and green lights draped from light pole to light pole was the big signal to everyone in our town of one square mile that the Christmas season was officially here.
I couldn’t wait to see the Conshohocken merchants and the Christmas displays, including Rafferty’s Pharmacy; Gold Seal Meat Market; Redmond’s Shoes, Taylor’s Paper Store, Baldwin’s Flowers, Ray’s Electric, and The Spot. Some would even have the Nativity in their windows, and the proprietors would wish you “Merry Christmas”. Banks got into the season as the Conshohocken Federal Savings & Loan always had Christmas decorations abounding…I’m sure in part to the delight of everyone, especially the president, George Gunning.
My personal family recollection of Christmas is that my father would go all out in decorating our home at 201 Harry Street. Our beautiful mahogany staircase would have laurel wrapped around it with ornaments hanging from it. As my home had 13 foot ceilings, we would always get a very tall tree – like six or seven feet. And always, it would require me to go to our neighbors, the Galie’s, where 11 boys resided, to get one of them to come down and help stabilize the tree with piano wire. And then we would put lighted wreaths in every window, and outside our doorway, there would be very large, blue bulbs around the doorway. And mother would put a plastic sheet of red Christmas bells on our front door to let us know when the door was opened or closed (and I still have that to this day). And a few times, my father actually got a live Christmas tree, and when Christmas was over he planted it in the front yard. It is the huge Douglas Fir that is in front of the house now.
Long gone are the days of St. Matthew’s Grade School, but back in the day, Emmanuel Kelly, father of five and a Third Avenue resident, would dress up as Santa Claus and surprise all of the kids at school. His appearance would come after the annual Christmas pageant at St. Matt’s. Mr. Kelly would hand out boxes of hard candy that contained candy canes, clear toys and other delicious, sugary treats. December was also filled with Christmas plays and Christmas concerts, led by the choir director and Conshohocken’s piano teacher, Margaret Collins, an incredibly talented musician who taught me and many, many Conshohocken children and adults for many years.
Outside of school, I was a member of a group called “The Rosary Club” that consisted of about 20 kids from age 6 all the way to 18 who would meet every Friday night at Our Lady of Fatima shrine at St. Matthews and say the rosary. At Christmastime, our group would go caroling up and down the avenues, and make a visit to St. Matthew’s Convent, where the nuns would make us hot chocolate. We would regale the neighbors with “Joy to the World”, and a group favorite, “Jingle Bells”. Our group consisted of all the Cashore’s – Lou, Alice, Joe and John; Marie and Charles Primavera; Denny O’Brien; my cousins, Helen, Bernard and David Moore; my brother Joel and John Kelly and others. My aunts Rosalie and Marie Leary kept this group together for over 10 years, and we would all get a small Christmas gift from them every year. Anyone for a Rosary Club reunion?
I do remember my father’s dental office playing Christmas Carol’s nonstop. He had a Heathkit record player, tuner and speaker system. He so loved playing Christmas music for his patients. In 1962, he got his first “Harry Simeone Chorale” record, and I remember hearing “The Little Drummer Boy” quite a lot. Bing Crosby’s Christmas album was another one of his favorites, as well as Perry Como’s Christmas album.
Of course, Christmas in Conshy wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the reason for the season. For me and my family, Christmas Eve was spent at Midnight Mass at St. Matt’s, sardined into pews with the hundreds of other parishioners. I remember seeing many of my classmates including the Galies, Plowers, Lacey’s, Dempsey’s, Tierney’s, Kelly’s, Staley’s, the Dennis’, the Joachim’s, the Scharf’s, the Schank’s, the Hilbert’s, the Catania’s, and the Petrucelli’s. If you weren’t in the choir, you would sit with your parents, but lucky for me I belonged to the choir. I remember singing at the front of church with candles, wearing our uniform, stockings and mantillas. The whole church was in darkness, except the light from our candles. And even though it was plenty after midnight, we visited the Nativity Scene in church and took the straw for good luck. We eventually made it back home in time for a Christmas buffet that my mother would serve – pancakes, sausage, potatoes, eggs and orange juice…and occasionally would invite some of the neighbors.
As far as the restaurants at Christmas, I remember the wonderful breakfasts served at the “401 Restaurant” – started in 1950 by George Aumann, great uncle to Bill Danitz, Jr. I always remember how the restaurant would be totally decked out for Christmas, and my father told me that on Christmas Eve morning people would be all dressed up – hats and gloves — and how when they were leaving people would be saying, “Merry Christmas…and God Bless You” while giving each other hugs – and meaning it.
A 1962 Christmas was a simple, unfettered time….”when life was slow, and oh so mellow”……It was quiet; it was filled with happiness; it was filled with simple pleasures. It was walking through the snow over to church; it was filled with anticipation…it was wishing tidings of the season and peace on earth.
I wish you a joyous holiday season and a Merry Christmas!