Monday, December 24, 2012

The cards of Christmas past

I am a tradition killer.

It's been years since I've sent out Christmas cards en masse, though in the last couple of years I've sent out Valentines to folks who sent us holiday greetings.  I'll probably do that again come February, though at last count, Tom and I had only received about five cards in the mail.  I've received several holiday e-cards from people who used to send "real" cards, but in general, the custom of sending these obligatory annual missives seems to be dying a slow death.

That's fine with me, for the most part, since they seem like an added duty at a time of year that's busy and stressful enough.  But looking at the handful of cards we received, I also remembered how much I loved retrieving December's mail from the box when I was a kid, looking at all the different kinds of handwriting, the postmarks from places that seemed far away and exotic to me at the time.  It was a real treat when my parents let me open them, and even when I didn't get to open them myself, I enjoyed reading them.

In some ways, they were like condensed history lessons about my parents' pasts:  where they'd lived, what they'd done, who they'd been long before I was born.  There were many old friends of my parents who I only knew through their cards, like my dad's college friend Jim Dukas, who was a professional actor in New York City.  His cards were always the funniest ones, and I remember his distinctive, slanty writing that was sort of halfway between print and cursive.  I actually met him during a high-school trip to NYC, and in many ways, I felt like I'd always known him.

It's certainly true that we have multiple, ongoing, and more immediate ways of keeping up with old friends these days (Facebook, I'm looking at you), and I certainly wouldn't want to give up social networking in favor of a once-a-year holiday update.  But those interactions are (we trust) largely private: you can't display your Facebook wall like you can display a collection of Christmas cards.  And of course, they're even more ephemeral that ephemera, as we've written about here before.

Which brings us to this year's collection of holiday ephemera (as opposed to this year's).  My mom's ongoing basement excavation recently unearthed a file folder of handmade Christmas cards that my parents sent out in the 1950s and 1960s.  My dad, as I've mentioned here before, was a keen amateur photographer, and he also apparently had access to a typesetter and a silk-screening setup at his office.  So, they designed and sent out a different card every year.

I'd only seen one of these before, so it was quite a surprise to me to see pretty much the whole run of them come out of the file folder.

This seems to be the first iteration, from when my parents were still living in Morgantown, before my brother Mark was born:

The 1954 edition, with Phillip and Pam

Fortunately, the "Hathmark" logo (!) on the back of each card lets us know when each was produced.

So, here they are, in order of appearance:

1956: Contract with Santa.  Pam's comment: "That looks like the contract Dad drew up for me when I was five and started getting an allowance" (a document she still has, natch).

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1958: Slightly derivative model, with a copy of a Thurber illustration on the outside and an Ogden Nash ditty on the inside

1959:  Apparently, there was someone at Lazarus, a big department store in Columbus, making cutout silhouettes of children before the holidays this year.  These are the images made of Phillip, Pam, and Mark, transferred into the holiday card.

There's a story behind the 1960 edition, above, which I hadn't heard before.  The drawing at the top is the work of my brother Mark, who was about five at the time.  My parents had a contest to decide which of the three kids' pictures would go on the front, and Mark's won.  My Dad apparently decided to improve upon the original by adding a belly button right before he printed it.  When Mark saw the final version, he burst into tears, saying, "My man has no clothes on!"  That'll teach you not to mess with a masterpiece.

1961 edition, on the same silver-speckled paper as the previous year's card

1962: Classic Pieta, my mom's handwriting, and the last of the speckled paper. 
And this elaborate, multi-lingual folding number from 1963:

There are, of course, extras: two-sided sheets, one side in red and one in green, ready to be cut up and folded.

1964:  Rented old-fashioned clothing, Victorian pose, and an actual tintype print glued into each card.

The tintype was the only one of these handmade cards I'd ever seen before, and there's a reason why, as the 1965 edition foreshadows:

So, there you have it:  my arrival apparently ended this tradition.  My parents still sent Christmas cards, but store-bought ones.  So maybe I'm not so much a tradition-killer as a tradition-modifier.

And I'll continue modifying it now by wishing our readers ( all three of you) a very Merry Christmas (or whatever December holiday you observe) and a bright, beautiful 2013.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Merry Strip-mas!

It's been a long, long semester, but yesterday we managed a quick trip up to the Strip District in Pittsburgh to do some Christmas shopping.

The Strip is crowded and lively on any Saturday, but especially during the holiday season!  And in addition to the usual seasonal decor, there are some distinctly Pittsburgh-y touches.

Tables full of greenery

Tables full of Italian cookies

Ceiling full of piƱatas at Reyna Foods

"Si se puede, Steelers" sign at the taco stand outside Reyna--where a mile-long line kept us from indulging. (Google Translate says this means "If they can, Steelers":  surely there's a better translation?)

Festive holiday-themed Terrible Towels...and of course, the ubiquitous breast-cancer pink Terrible Towel

"Andiamo, Steelers!"

Outside of the amazing Penn Mac.  We didn't even try to go to the deli side on this trip--people were packed in there like sardines

Huge lines waiting to check out at Penn Mac, where we got several kinds of pasta, three-grain risotto, dried canellini beans, shallots, and other goodies

"Ritorna presto":  we most certainly will.  There's always a great reason to come back to the Strip.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pittsburgh Step Trek

Yes, I know:  long time no blog.  What can I tell you?  The semester started.

However, today we did get out of town to participate in an event I've been wanting to check out ever since we saw a story about it on Rick Sebak's WQED show "It's The Neighborhoods":  the Pittsburgh Step Trek, put on by the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association:  a 3.5 mile walk up and down the hills south of the Monongahela River that includes 1,815 of the public steps that run along and cut between the twisty roads of the neighborhood.

A chilly, rainy morning in Morgantown didn't bode well for an outdoor adventure--but by the time we got up to Pittsburgh early this afternoon, the sun was out, there was a lovely cool breeze, and it turned out to be a total Chamber-of-Commerce, photo-op kind of autumn day.

The walk was a challenge, to say the least...but totally worth it for the amazing views of downtown Pittsburgh and the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, and for the intangible "Pittsburghness" of the whole event, for lack of a better word.

First ascent:  these stairs up from South Side Park to Mission Street...

...past the now-closed Church of St. Josephat, built in 1916 to serve a largely Polish parish, as the language of the cornerstone and the war memorial attest.

Then up 143 steps for some spectacular views of downtown across a weirdly jungle-y landscape...

And then lots more steps and lots more spectacular views.

Cathedral of Learning at the U of Pittsburgh in the distance

One of the highlights of this year's tour was its path through an area called "The Hollow," home to the city's Slovak community in the early 20th century (according to the guide, the Pittsburgh area is "home to more Slovaks than any other area in the United States").

The heart of the community was this place, the Kollar Club, more formally known as "The John Kollar Slovak Literary and Library Society."  Named for a famous 19th-century Slovak poet, the club is still in operation, "preserving Slovak language and culture, and serving as a venue for live music."

Have I mentioned how much I love Pittsburgh?  It's places like these that make this city such a remarkable place.  Many older, rust-belt cities may have places that used to house to ethnic clubs; in Pittsburgh, they're alive and well and thriving.

Then up another long flight of steps from The Hollow to Mary Street...

...with a peek into a charming hidden garden on the way...

...and back down some more steps...

...and up and down and up and down some more, until it started to feel a little Bataan-Death-March-like, and we wondered how on earth the steel- and glass-workers who lived in these houses and walked  to work in the factories on the river ever made it back up the hill to get home after a long day of work.

And we wondered where they bought groceries, and drank; presumably, back in the day, there were little corner stores and bars at the end of every block.  Now everyone seems to have a car, and they probably drive down to one of the many, many bars along Carson Street.

After we finished, we pondered having a drink ourselves, but instead went to Rita's Custard, also on Carson Street.  We figured we'd already burned off the calories.

Such an amazing city.  Such a great day out.  And such an inspiring story behind the group that organizes the event, the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association.

Apparently, the group started up fifteen years ago after three homes were destroyed in a fire because a standard city fire truck wasn't able to get through the neighborhood's narrow, winding streets to reach them.  (Some of the homes in the area can only be accessed by the steps--there's no street access to them at all!)  As the guide notes, "they gathered data and succeeded at making the case for a smaller fire truck with a tighter turning basis.  The city adopted the new design, and now a number of smaller, more-able fire trucks serve hillside neighborhoods throughout Pittsburgh."

That's what I call successful community organizing.