What Was Christmas Like 100 Years Ago? He Remembers

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FREEHOLD, N.J. — Some Christmas gifts we never forget; for Ambrose LeVan, it was the wagon.

When he was 6, his father gave him a small wagon that he could pull along.

“It wasn’t a play thing,” LeVan said. “We would go along the railroad tracks for 4 miles and pick up the coal that was spilled as they tried to shovel it into the boilers of a moving train. We couldn’t afford coal.”

That was Christmas 1917, 8½ months after the United States entered World War I.

LeVan is 105 years old now. If you’re curious about how Christmas has evolved over the past century, the Freehold resident is a living witness.

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Back then, he said gifts were rare and practical. With that wagon, a young LeVan also lugged home groceries from the corner store in his hometown of Reading, Pa.

The LeVan family lived in a rented house heated with a pot-bellied stove and illuminated via kerosene lamps. Their one holiday decoration each December was a Christmas tree.

“My father would buy a small tree for a nickel. We couldn’t afford ornaments. We had a box of cotton and he winded it and put that on the tree limbs.”
Ambrose LeVan, Freehold, N.J.
“My father would buy a small tree for a nickel,” LeVan said. “We couldn’t afford ornaments. We had a box of cotton and he winded it and put that on the tree limbs. That was the first indication of Christmas as we know it today.”

Christmas 1918 brought a big breakthrough.

“My father found a second-hand Lionel train that didn’t run, and he took it apart and got it running,” LeVan said. “That was a big thing. Few people had it.”

They set it up in the yard — an engine and two cars — and it was the talk of the neighborhood.

You know what else was a topic of conversation that season? The end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. These days, we celebrate it every year as Veterans Day.

“I well remember that,” LeVan said. “I remember my mother took me to a (victory) parade and she was kissed by one of the soldiers.”

The Roaring '20s ushered in prosperity for some, but not for all. LeVan was 14 when is father died, and he dropped out of school to earn a paycheck.

“I stamped details on men’s stockings that showed the size and the manufacturer,” he said. “I worked 30 hours a week and would make $3.60 a week. That was enough to buy the food for us for a whole week.”

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Things got better when his mother remarried. He remembers getting small Christmas gifts more regularly, but the staples of the holiday remained the same: Mass at midnight or dawn and visits to friends and family in town.

LeVan continued those traditions when he started a family of his own. After climbing the ladder of an engineering firm, rising from draftsman to vice president, he added a few twists to the holidays.

“Things my father talked about but never could afford,” he said. “We put up a tree with a lot of nice decorations and electric light bulbs, which was quite a treat.”

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One Christmas, he bought his daughter a set of Lionel trains. She passed it on to her daughters and now one of her granddaughters has it.

“The tradition of the trains goes on,” said Joan Jones, the daughter who now is 78.

The holidays are about tradition, but for someone like LeVan, they’re also about perspective. After all, his first Christmas gift was a wagon for collecting coal.

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“It’s disheartening to see kids with so many presents take them and tear off the covering like it’s another piece of junk,” he said. “They’re opening them without any real appreciation for what went behind that gift — the thought in selecting it, the cost of it.”

LeVan never lost that appreciation. At 105 he remains remarkably sharp and fit, still swimming and playing the organ. His wife, Dorothy, died in 2003 after 67 years of marriage.

He will spend this Christmas like those simple holidays of his youth, seeing family and going to church.

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Regarding the latter, he will make one concession to Father Time.

“Probably at 4 in the afternoon instead of midnight,” he said.
Duration: 4 Minute, 52 Second
Rating: 4.1
Published: 3 Years Ago
Author: Русские Мелодрамы
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