It had been three months since the big stock market crash on Black Monday, October 29, 1929. Things were tense around our town since then — people were talking and wondering what was going on — but nothing traumatic happened. The local brass mill was still open and since a majority of the people in our town worked there, most everyone still had a job.
My dad was one of them: a hard-working man who always did his best to provide for his family. He had been with the brass mill since he came to America right before the First World War, having emigrated from his native Czechoslovakia.
It was in Europe that he caught the fever — not scarlet fever, or rheumatic fever — but what I called American fever. He made it his life’s passion to move to America, to start a new life there, to dream his dreams, and to give his family a shot at life that he never had.
In the early 1900s, he and his new bride arrived in New York City, not knowing a single person or a word of English. I don’t quite know how he did it, but he made his way up into the northwest part of the state of Connecticut, where there was plenty of work and plenty of land for newcomers like dad. He went to work right away in the local brass mill, a factory that literally was the lifeblood of the community. He and mom worked hard, saved their money, bought some land, built a house, and began unfolding their very own American dream.
For being a relative newcomer to this country and to this town, Dad was fortunate to make a name for himself in a relatively short time. He was active in the local church parish. And being a handyman, he was always helping the neighbors fix this and mend that. When someone needed some extra money or food, Dad was right there to lend a helping hand. He was quick to give to anyone in need, and he especially loved to give to those closest to him — like mom and his newborn son, yours truly!
Dad found a lot of joy in having his first child. He was kind and generous to me all year round but was especially so around Christmas. Oh, how he and mom loved that holiday! They celebrated Christmas with all the joy and fervor one could possibly muster.
Like all the kids my age, I looked forward most of all to my Christmas presents. Dad and Mom made a big deal of giving me something very, very special each year. I never realized it until years later that dad sometimes had to work a second job just to make sure I had that special Christmas present. I guess that was a big part of his American Dream — to provide for me what he never had as a boy. Every Christmas I can remember was like this — a festive time, highlighted by a huge feast, and of course, the grand opening of our Christmas presents. Every Christmas that is, until the brass mill closed.
That happened on November 1931 — two years and a month after the stock market crashed. I’ll never forget the day –November 28 — because I was playing outside in the afternoon, and I saw Dad walking slowly walking — towards the house.
He never came home in the afternoon — his hours were long, especially during this time of year, when he would sometimes work at another job until late in the evening. I ran out to greet him, only to find my father — a big, burly man— smothered in tears. In my 12 years of life, I had never seen my father. But on this gray, November afternoon, the proudest man I ever knew was broken.
He entered the house, and my mother knew immediately that something was wrong. “They closed the mill,” my father said in a soft monotone. “We’ve all lost our jobs.”
What happened, I learned later in life, was that the owner of the mill took a big financial hit the day the market crashed.
He did everything he could to keep the mill afloat in the months afterward, but nothing worked. The country, indeed, the world, was stuck in the mire of what would someday be known as the Great Depression. This Great Depression had come to our small world in northwestern Connecticut.
The weeks that followed were filled with horrible stories of people losing their jobs and their homes. Dad went to nearly every business in town looking for work, willing to do just about anything to put food on our table. Some nights we went to bed hungry; some mornings we awoke with hardly enough to eat. All this misery and Christmas was fast approaching. Christmas. What kind of Christmas was this going to be? I figured we weren’t going to have much of a feast. And what about presents? Was I going to get anything under the tree? These were real questions I had, and when the time was right, I was going to find out the answers.
Christmas Eve finally arrived. Dad still hadn’t had any steady work since the mill closed. But I didn’t care. All I wanted to know was what I was going to get for Christmas. I dug down deep and got the courage to ask. “Dad,” I said. “Are we going to celebrate Christmas this year?” “Why of course, son. We always celebrate Christmas.” “I know, dad, but am I going to get anything this year?” My father was silent. “Son,” he said, “money is tight right now. I’m afraid our presents will be a bit late this year.”
Those were horrible words for my ears. I stomped off to my bedroom, like a spoiled child, and proceeded to cry myself to sleep. Little did I know that it was my father’s heart, and not mine, which had just been broken.
The next morning, Christmas morning, came right on schedule and I rushed downstairs with the hopes that my father was wrong … that there would be presents under the tree. He wasn’t wrong. The tree was standing alone. I turned around to run back to my room for a good cry only to see my father standing there, his eyes welling up with tears.
“I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry.” For the first time in my life, I felt bad for my father. Even though I was only 12 years old, I knew that his feelings were hurt. I ran and embraced him (or should I say, he embraced me.) ”Don’t worry, dad. We’re going to be all right. I just know it.” I didn’t really know it, but I said it anyway. My dad hugged me and didn’t say a word.
In fact, he didn’t say much the rest of the morning. He just sat there in a stupor. He felt like a failure, like he had let the family down. We had no big dinner planned, no presents, and so he thought, no Christmas. Just before noon, there was a knock on the door. I ran to see who it was. “Hi, Stefan,” said our next-door neighbor Mr. Piazza. “Are your parents home?”
My Dad and Mom both came to the door and invited Mr. Piazza and his son Anthony in. They were carrying two boxes. “Mrs. Piazza had some extra ham and turkey and trimmings,” said Mr. Piazza, “so we thought we could share them with you.”
My Dad, a prideful man, was furious. “Thank you for the offer, Mr. Piazza,” he said. “But my family doesn’t take handouts from anyone.”
“But it’s not a handout, sir,” Mr. Piazza replied. “It’s Christmas. God has blessed our family so much this year, I must share. Besides, how many times have you helped our family by giving us extra clothing or food? You’ve helped so many people in this town. For the love of God, please accept our gift.”
My father was stunned. Never before had he had to take anything from anyone. He was a self-made man. A man who was always on the giving side, never the receiving side. But now, here he was … broke, out of a job, humbled. He took a deep breath and gave Mr. Piazza a hard stare. For a moment I thought he was going to break into one of his famous bursts of anger which he usually reserved for special disciplinary moments. His mouth opened. I cringed. “Thank you, Mr. Piazza,” said Dad. “And may God bless you.”
I was still stunned at my dad’s reaction, or should I say, lack of reaction, I almost didn’t notice young Anthony Piazza, a contemporary of mine, holding out the second package. “Here,” he said. “This is for you.” I quickly opened the wrapping and found inside a brand-new football. Later, I learned that this was one of his presents that his parents made him give me.
We had quite a Christmas dinner that day, thanks to the kindness of our neighbors. But of everything, I remember that Christmas day, it wasn’t the food or the football. Rather, it was something my father said.
“Of all the time I’ve been in America,” Dad said, “this is the first time I’ve really celebrated Christmas.” I saw the sparkle in this humble man’s eye. I smiled at him and didn’t say a word.
But I knew what he meant. And for the first time in my young life, I, too, celebrated Christmas. Indeed, this was a true example of what Christmas is all about. Certainly, it encompasses gift-giving, family dinners, fellowship, and more. But it’s really more than that. The true spirit of Christmas is found in the acts of giving, sharing, and caring.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!