Today is Christmas and Kwanzaa begins tomorrow. For your reading pleasure, we wanted to share Christmas and holiday memories from The HistoryMakers archives with you. Please Enjoy!
Decorating the Christmas tree, c.1940s
Four-time NBA All-Star Houston Rockets, Ralph Sampson recalled why Christmas was his favorite holiday: “Christmas was always special because… my mother and father worked hard and we didn't get everything we probably wanted but we got everything we needed… There was one year… We didn't go downtown and pay thirty-four dollars for a Christmas tree. We went into the back woods… and cut our own tree… the tree was so sparse… but ended up probably being the prettiest tree we ever had and the best Christmas we ever had…” Music composer Jeffrey Mumford spoke of the family Christmas tree and Christmas decorations: “Trimming our tree at Christmastime was a family occasion we… took very seriously. My brother [Thaddeus Mumford, Jr.] recalls this book… called 'The Tall Book of Christmas.' And we'd read from that book Christmas stories, and we'd sing carols. And we'd spray the fake (laughter) snow on the tree and the flocking of it and the lights and strings, and there'd be this wonderful music in the background… very special times.” For the former lead singer of the Doowop group the Platters Sonny Turner, the tree and homemade ornaments stood out: “We'd… go out and get a tree… a real tree. We had to learn how to put it in the bucket of dirt… keep it damp, not too much water… And making Christmas ornaments, and paper-cutting… We didn't have a lot of money… but there was a lot of talent. Mothers and grandmothers always had that talent to make things look so pretty.” Founding member of SNCC, Frank Smith, similarly remembered: “My favorite time of the year was, and still is Christmas… It is an exciting time of the year for me and it goes back to my childhood to parents [Flora and Frank Smith Sr.] who really wanted to make it a special time of the year for their children. Although there was a very large number of us--there were eight kids… So they created all of these additional things to go with whatever toy you had. You got candy and fruits and nuts… you got the excitement of Santa Claus.”
Darryl Hill dressed as Santa Clause, age five, 1948
Darryl Hill, the first African American football player at the U.S. Naval Academy and in the Atlantic Coast Conference, recalled receiving some extra attention on Christmas as one of the few boys in the family: “Christmas was always a big deal 'cause my parents [Kermit E. Hill and Palestine Smith Hill] were big gift givers… my great-grandmother was one of thirteen girls, and she had a daughter who had three daughters. So I was the first male born… in the family for four generations… I was getting the attention from top to bottom… my aunts were taking me everywhere and buying me stuff… the holidays were like a big deal ‘cause I'd have two Christmases… I'd have mine at home, and then I'd go over to my grandparents [Margaret Riley Smith, Crawley Fayette Smith] and had another one and then of course my father's grandparents [John Hill and Lurene Banks Hill].”
A woman with her display of Christmas cards, c.1940s
Arts educator Joan Sandler (1934 - 2020) spoke of how her mother made Christmas special even when times were tough: “We knew it was Christmas and we knew there was not a gift in the house… no special foods 'cause normally there would be… And, my mother [Mary Wade Alexander]… I guess we were… looking sad but not complaining… my mother saw that. And, she just took all these magazines and pieces of paper and she made all these wonderful things by hand. And, she got us involved in making it… she just had this incredible spirit and magic about her that she could pull us from the dust bin really, and make Christmas… My mother was very good with her hands. She was a great seamstress, and she was a great cook… she just had this creative spirit.”
Cathy Hughes with her mother, nurse and jazz trombonist Helen Jones Woods, who passed away past July
For Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One, Christmas was the time that she learned an important lesson about gratitude: “One Christmas--my mother [HistoryMaker Helen Jones Woods] was big on books and classical records… grocery stores used to sell book series. And they used to sell classical music series. So that's what I got for Christmas. And I thought that was the worst Christmas, and I ignored the fact that the four of us got collectively a record player to play these 45s on… And I kind of led a revolution, a little mutiny on my mother. My mother packed up everything under that Christmas tree and took it to the orphanage and dropped it off. By three o'clock Christmas afternoon, there was nothing in the house, not even dinner… she took everything out of the house and then started taking down the tree, just humming to herself. She said, ‘You all don't appreciate that I try to do my best.’ That was last time that I ever led a mutiny in my household… and it was the last time that I was not grateful for that which someone does for me… that lesson that my mother taught us that Christmas was that when somebody gives you something, it's the motive, it's the reason. It's not the gift. It's the action behind the gift. And… if you're ungrateful, that's the ultimate in disrespect. That's like slapping them, because after my mother took down that Christmas tree, she sat down and cried like a baby… After that we had happy Christmases every year, and if we didn't, we pretended that we did, because Mama didn't play.”
Advertising guru Carol H. Williams tells of her father’s portrayal of Santa birds: “When we were small kids… we lived on the fourth floor of this apartment building and in the wintertime… the snow would come down so pristine… and the… window sills would get these very beautiful pillows like white billows of snow on it… and we would see pigeon prints in it. And, so, we told dad, ‘Come look… there are pigeons landing on our windows.’ And, dad told us they were Santa birds and that they were sent by Santa Claus to watch little kids. And, if we were naughty… the birds would report back to Santa and we wouldn't get anything for Christmas. So, we were always on the watch out for these Santa birds (laughter).”
Siblings on Christmas morning, undated
For children, certain gifts stood out. Comedian George Wallace described that as the baby of the family, “there's nothing I ever wanted for that I didn't get… My last Christmas I spent with my mom … the little transistor radios had just come out... and they wouldn't get the radio… then it got like December 23rd and I told my brother ‘I'm gonna get that radio… I need some money...’ And they wouldn't come up with it. I'm going, ‘What's going on around here?’ And I went back to the store… And I'd just look at it… but Christmas morning… we'd unwrap the gifts people would send us… There was a little box and… I open that one… And that was the radio… and I dropped. And I went ‘Oh mom. Mom I got the radio.’ Of course she knew… And I just… I can feel it today. What happened to me then… That was the biggest thing ever happened to me in my life. Getting that transistor radio.”
c.1940s Lionel coal model train
Newspaper columnist E. Lee Lassiter distinctly remembered “Christmases when it was just my brother [Willis Clarence Lassiter] and I as children and my father [Narvie Hester Lassiter] always chose something [as a gift] that did something extremely unique. He bought my brother a Lionel train back when having a Lionel train was kind of rare, that would smoke. It would choo-choo. The light in front would come on. It went around on a little track… I can remember him buying me a… airplane that once you wound it up and the propellers started spinning. It… had guns… [that] would spark like they were firing… I remember a truck that one of us got one Christmas that had figures in it with large heads sticking up out of the truck… when it would go forward until it bumped into something, the figures would turn their heads in the other direction, and it would start backing up until it bumped into something… you can't forget (laughter) toys like that… the Christmases were unique.”Brig. Gen. Arnold Gordon-Bray told of how he wanted to replicate the magic of Christmas from his childhood for his children: “I used to hire people to be Santa Claus. They would come into my house and place toys in the house. So my kids didn't know that there wasn't a Santa Claus until they were in their teens. Their friends would tell them that there is no Santa Clause and they would look for proof. I let them sleep with me over night but then the toys would be there in the morning because I would have different ways of configuring it and trick them so badly… So Christmas is huge in my mind, and it all goes back to one, sacrifices my parents [Martha Lee McNeil Gordon Bray and Felix Gordon] made to make that time of the year, that day special in the purest sense of the word.”
HistoryMaker Hermene Hartman, founder of N'DIGO magazine, on Santa Claus’s lap, Mandel's Department Store, Chicago, Illinois, c.1948
Entertainer and musician Oscar Brown, Jr. (1926 - 2005) told of his skepticism of Santa Claus as five year old: “I was somewhat of a… loud mouth… when I was about five years old, and I figured out that Santa Claus was absolutely too fat to get down the chimney… So I went around and I told my friends, anybody with a grain of sense would know that that fat man could not get down this chimney. And so the parents… They were mad at me for having pulled… the covers off of Santa Claus like that. But I had figured out that one out myself, and had even gone around and said, well, if there's no Santa Claus, then the toys must be here. So I searched the house, and I found them, hidden in a closet. And I put on my cowboy suit when my mother wasn't there. And it was the biggest disappointment Christmas Day cause now there was no Santa Claus (laughter), and I'd seen all my toys.” Arts administrator Ronne Hartfield, on the other hand, at age seven, snuck off to see Santa Claus at Sears in Chicago: “When I was seven years old, I took four little girls downtown to see Santa Claus and we weren't supposed to tell our parents that we had done this… it only cost four cents. So you could take two pop bottles to the store and you got four cents… And this one little girl… Sears gave us a little Santa Claus comic book so she took hers home and her mother saw it and [she said] ‘Ronne took us down there…’ Our parents were taking too long. We got tired of waiting (laughter). I knew how to go. I knew if you got on that street car, it let you off at Wabash and Van Buren and Sears was right there.”
Family as well as church was the center of the holiday for former PWC executive Chris Simmons: “Christmas was first all about church. We'd go to a church service on Christmas Eve [at New Little Rock Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee]; usually it'd be a visiting minister… and then on Christmas Day… we'd do the normal gift opening, but instead of the twenty-three gifts then, on average, I think my children got each… I got maybe three. Usually, it might be a sweater, some socks, and then I'd get my, one favorite toy, and I remember being really excited about getting that one favorite toy. But, again… it was more about family and closeness, and we'd almost always go down to my mother's parents' [Zenora Jackson Anderson and Lucious Anderson] house… big family gathering. And… have some really good food 'cause we got a lotta good cooks in the family.”
Reenactment of the Nativity Scene, St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, Washington, D.C., 2003
For Columbia Records executive Michael Mauldin, Christmas centered around the church service: “At nine o'clock or eight o'clock on Christmas Eve, we would go to our grandmother's house… Mama Vallie [Vallie Allen Bowman] and Granddaddy [Walter Bowman]… she would always have food… them great coconut cakes… we'd open up their gifts… and we would eat… And then… we would go to Midnight Mass [at St. William Catholic Church, Murphy, North Carolina]… when we came home from Midnight Mass, Santa Claus was always there… we never waited until the next morning… by the time we arrived from the church… Santa Claus would have been there. And that's how my mom and them always did it… when I was little.”
Taking a turkey out of the over, c.1960s
Then there was always Christmas dinner as told by former federal judge Ann Claire Williams: “Christmas dinner was so important to the family, that I've never missed Christmas dinner my entire life. So that means we have to pack up all the gifts, get everybody together and drive over to Detroit. We've gone there through all kinds of weather. Blizzards, ice storms, so that we could be with the family. And be there Christmas Eve, and be there for the Christmas dinner… I wanted my children to have that bond with the family, and to not see the family just at funeral time… And I remember music, singing, because my father had a wonderful singing voice… And singing around the piano at Christmas.” Former museum director Harry Robinson, Jr. recalled the Christmas menu in Louisiana: “You always had gumbo on Christmas… I don't remember a lot of turkey… but you had chicken and some of them even had wild food… coons and that kind of stuff. And when you had turkey… turkey always stuffed with rice dressing, rice and oysters and that was good eating… gumbo was staple…. stocked with shrimp, chicken, sausage, everything was in there… everybody made cake. Pound cakes… the adults drank hard liquor, that was big deal during Christmas… they ordered that liquor for Christmas.”
A boy on Christmas morning, 1973
The Honorable Dwight Bush, Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, remembered becoming entrepreneurial with a gift he and his brother received: “One Christmas the gift to my brother, Darryl [Darryl Bush] and me was a lawn mower. That was our Christmas gift, and we proceeded to (laughter) to engage as many of the people in our neighborhood as possible to cut their grass, so we're twelve and thirteen years old and by this time we've got several lawn mowers and we are cutting everybody's… grass, and we're making money and it was just part and parcel to how the industrial element in our family was manifesting itself.”
Traditional Kwanzaa display
The week-long celebration of Kwanzaa also begins tomorrow.
Employees spread the mkeka with mazao and light the seven candles of the kinara for a Kwanzaa celebration at the annual Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s employee holiday party, 1973
Reverend Dr. Maisha Handy recalled celebrating Kwanzaa while growing up in Chicago: “I remember a lot of celebrations, a lot of dancing, a lot of singing… and I remember being dressed in kind of African attire and dancing as part of a Kwanzaa celebration. Of course, remember the daily candle lightings… and learning what the different elements on the table meant as well… I remember getting presents on January 1st rather than on December 25th… that was the intention of the whole Black Arts [Movement] and Black Power Movement is to create our own kind of Afrocentric celebrations… for the empowerment of black people to restore a sense of the African self.” Sony Entertainment executive Isisara Bey shared: “One of my favorite times of year is Kwanzaa, love Kwanzaa because its principles based… every day we focus on a principle, on the history, on each other, on putting it into practice and we do it with every generation. I used to have Kwanzaa gatherings in my home with fifty or sixty people of all generations and I'd bring different theater games and cultural games so that we could live the principles and then make a dedication to each other, so that when we came together the next year, we could see things happen.”
Our gatherings are smaller this year, but however you spend your holidays, may they be enjoyable. Please also share memories. Doing so will help them extra special!!!
Ralph Sampson (The HistoryMakers A2010.073), interviewed by Denise Gines, July 14, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Ralph Sampson remembers Christmas.
Jeffrey Mumford (The HistoryMakers A2005.011), interviewed by Regennia Williams, January 12, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Jeffrey Mumford describes holidays with his family in Washington, D.C.
Sonny Turner (The HistoryMakers A2007.318), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, November 2, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Sonny Turner remembers celebrating Christmas as a child.
Frank Smith (The HistoryMakers A2004.257), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, December 13, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Frank Smith recalls Christmas, churchgoing and self help traditions of their rural community in Georgia.
Darryl Hill (The HistoryMakers A2004.013), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, March 3, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Darryl Hill recounts early childhood memories.
Joan Sandler (The HistoryMakers A2005.035), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, February 2, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Joan Sandler remembers a special Christmas with her mother.
Cathy Hughes (The HistoryMakers A2004.171), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 2, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 12, story 8, Cathy Hughes recalls her mother's lessons in giving, pt. 2.
Carol H. Williams (The HistoryMakers A2007.341), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 14, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 1, story 4, Carol H. Williams remembers her father's storytelling.
George Wallace (The HistoryMakers A2001.074), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 7, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, George Wallace describes a memorable Christmas from his youth.
E. Lee Lassiter (The HistoryMakers A2010.070), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 16, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, E. Lee Lassiter describes her earliest childhood memories of Christmas with his family.
Brig. Gen. Arnold Gordon-Bray (The HistoryMakers A2013.224), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 11, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Arnold Gordon-Bray describes how his childhood Christmas experiences have influenced his Christmas traditions as an adult.
Oscar Brown, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2000.010), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 19, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Oscar Brown Jr. describes his childhood personality.
Ronne Hartfield (The HistoryMakers A2002.080), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 3, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Ronne Hartfield describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood, pt. 2.
Chris Simmons (The HistoryMakers A2012.123), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 7, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Chris Simmons talks about celebrating Christmas as a child.
Michael Mauldin (The HistoryMakers A2007.257), interviewed by Denise Gines, September 12, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Michael Mauldin remembers Christmas celebrations.
The Honorable Ann Claire Williams (The HistoryMakers A2000.042), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 20, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Ann Williams continues to remember her youth.
Harry Robinson, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2006.089), interviewed by Denise Gines, May 4, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Harry Robinson, Jr. describes his family's Christmas traditions.
The Honorable Dwight Bush, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2014.116), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 22, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 10, The Honorable Dwight Bush, Sr. remembers his early work experiences.
Reverend Dr. Maisha Handy (The HistoryMakers A2005.200), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 22, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Reverend Dr. Maisha Handy describes her family's resistance to mainstream holidays.
Isisara Bey (The HistoryMakers A2016.013), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 29, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 4, Isisara Bey describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community.