A Western Pennsylvania Christmas
by Lynda McKinney Lambert
“Oh, it is so cold this morning! My lips are probably blue! Are they, Patti? Are my lips blue? I don’t want to get up!” Patti and I shared a bedroom.
Patti was waking up now because I was complaining. She took a deep breath, then she spoke slowly, “Do we have to get up already?” She took a quick look towards the wall of double-hung windows on her side of the bed. “It’s still kind of dark outside,” she announced. A cold wind was blowing outside.
Just like every other house in the neighborhood, ours was the typical houses of most of the steelworkers in our little city. It had a wide porch that spanned across the front of the house from one side to the other. The front door was in the center of the porch with a large widow on each side of it.
Mom was proud of the organdy ruffled curtains in every room of the house. They were a lot of work for her and it was even harder because of all the soot that drifted in on the air from outside.
“Just a couple more days till Santa comes,” Mom said. School would be closed soon and we would be home for the Christmas holiday.
Our two-story house was heated by a large coal furnace two floors below our bedroom. The furnace stood like a hulking giant right in the center of the hard dirt floor of the basement. Its round hollow arms captured heat from the furnace and moved upwards into the entire house. Dad got up before dawn to get the fire started. Once the fire was giving off heat Dad could leave for his walk down the railroad tracks, across the creek, to the steel mill. Dad made stainless steel! In winter time, he left in the dark morning, and returned home in the dark evening.
Coal, the central part of our lives, heated our homes in the 1940s. Coal miners of western Pennsylvania provide coal needed all across the country.
Homes and factories were no longer heated by wood. Coal was the king of daily life in America since the late nineteenth-century in the north-eastern United States. It was needed for homes, steam ships, locomotives and factories. We all knew a lot about coal!
Every home had a coal furnace, a coal chute and a coal cellar in the basement The black dust filled the air all through the basement and outside on the day when the coal truck made it’s delivery.
Mom’s voice sounded urgent. “Girls! Are you out of bed yet? You better be up because we have to leave here soon and you need to have your breakfast first. Your oatmeal is ready, come and get it before it gets cold! Mrs. Bitenz is driving today since it’s snowing so much. You know she is always on time.”
Patti and I both decided to jump out of bed at the same time. Our bare feet hit the highly polished pine floors as we jumped down from the bed. We were wearing our flannel nightgowns. With a rush, we ran the few steps from the bed to the registers in the bedroom. “Oh, the register feels so good,” I said. We huddled together; each of us trying to keep our cold bare feet on the warming metal register in our bedroom floor.
When Dad had the fire blazing, he closed the heavy cast iron door. Dad knew how to keep the fire burning for hours at a time. My awareness of the magic of coal and fire was in those daily trips to the basement to watch Dad work the fire into a frenzy. Dad was a magician, and we children were his attentive audience as he practiced magic rituals.
One afternoon we all sat around the long mahogany table in the dining room together. Santa needed letters from us so he would know what we wanted for Christmas. We had the Sears catalogue and we all gathered around it to get a look at all the delights on the pages of the catalogue. “I want a Snow White doll. She comes with her seven dwarfs, too! I really, really want a Snow White doll,” Patti cooed with determination. The boys were mostly interested in some new trucks and cars. David picked out a red fire truck and Tommy had his finger firmly planted on the green bulldozer he wanted to write to Santa about.
Coal is a shiny black rock. I actually know it is magic because a piece of coal burns. A rock that burns! Bituminous coal is also called “soft coal” and it starts to burn much quicker than the other kind of coal. The other kind of coal is Anthracite, and that is usually called “the hard coal.”
The biggest problem we all had was the dirty soot that gathered on our porch and window sills. Soot blew into the sky from the steel mills. It was greasy, black little fragments that floated in the air and landed on all the houses and porches. Cleaning the porches and windows seemed like an endless job to us when the weather was warmer. When winter came, the snow would get a layer of the black dust all over it.
“Have you written your letters to Santa yet?” Dad asked. “Yes,” we all said at the same time. Since I am the oldest, I am in charge of getting things done in the house. I handed Dad the four lists we created. We wrote them on our school tablets, with the blue lines on the white paper. We were all aware that It was getting close to Christmas and we all four were anxious to get those letters off to Santa. I felt a little nervous about my letter though, because I knew I had not been “good” sometimes during the year. I was thinking about the fight I had in the summer time with David and Tommy. I recalled how the neighbor had sent us all three home when she heard us fighting in her yard. Santa might know about it and then I would be in trouble with the gifts, I realized. And, how did Santa know everything? Well, that is simple. It is the elves he sends out to spy on us. They report back to him when they see us doing things that are not so nice. When I thought about it, I could remember some other things, too, that I did that year.
When we wrote the letters to Santa, Tommy was watching out the windows for elves, too. Mom told us often during this time of year about the elves watching us day and night. It was frightening to think about it, really! David looked worried and said, Well, the worst thing that can happen would be for Santa to get a report that I didn’t stay in my room when I had the mumps and I gave them to Bobby.” Bobby lived across the street from our house. Terror filled our hearts because we all knew the penalty that we would receive on Christmas day if that happened. We have been warned again and again about that! I really wanted to get a travel alarm clock, like the one Bridget had at school. Bridget seemed to have everything. But, her little red travel alarm clock was the best thing I could imagine – so I wrote that in my letter to Santa. As I wrote about the travel alarm clock, though, I also was remembering that I had taken some of Bridget’s colored pencils while she was outside for recess. But, I hoped it would not count because I did have to give them back to her after the teacher found out. I was also thinking about Tommy playing with fire. He was really in trouble for that!
Dad opened the furnace door and the fire felt like it was going to come out and burn us up “We will put the lists in the fire now. Santa will get your list because he will read the smoke from the chimney.” And, in a moment we watched as the paper curled up quickly, caught on fire, and turned into nothing as the fire consumed it before our eyes. Dad closed the door with a clank that startled us back to the moment.
I am not sure if those smoke messages really did get to Santa though. On Christmas morning, we opened our gifts. There were some cars and trucks for the boys. Tommy got a teddy bear he wanted. David got his erector set and Patti’s new Snow White doll did have a box full of dwarfs in it, just as she had asked for in her letter.
I was excited as I held the square package that was just the right size for the traveling alarm clock. It was a thrill to even think about what I was going to find inside that wrapping paper. I ripped it off, and there was my gift! A musical powder box! But, I never wanted a powder box at all! What was Santa thinking about when he picked out this gift for me?
But, it was only a few minutes before another even bigger disappointment came up that really spoiled my day. Santa had filled our stockings just like he said he would. I was nearly finished opening them when I saw one final package for me. It was a bit heavy for such a small package, too! Once again, I had a burst of renewed energy and got excited with the anticipation of something that I would love to get from Santa. “Oh, No! This is the worst thing that can happen,” I thought. Now I knew for sure the elves had done their sneaky job in reporting misdeeds to Santa for the entire year. I held out my hand and slowly turned the lump of coal around in it for everyone to see. That day I learned a truth that every kid in western Pennsylvania knows. The good little children get gifts that are nice, and the naughty ones get a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking!
“Work in the mines was hard and dangerous. Between 1877 and 1940, 18,000 men and boys died in Pennsylvania bituminous mines.”
References: PA Coal History – http://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1-9-18
May your holidays be filled with the joy and warmth of the season!
Copyright December 12, 2015. All rights reserved world-wide
This story is the final essay for the Walking by Inner Vision Journal we started at the beginning of the year. If you go to my next post, you will get the entire lesson for this story. I give you all the details about HOW TO develop a story of your own for Christmas. I take you STEP by STEP through the writing process of this story. Merry Christmas!