2008-12-24 / Front Page

Christmas past in Jamestown

Islanders share holiday memories
By Eileen M. Daly

Christmas has always been a time of excitement and celebration, a time of social festivities and family traditions, but Christmas celebrations, like every other social convention, grow and change with the passing years.

Local Jamestowners' memories of Christmas' past sometimes contrast sharply with present day experiences.

Victor Richardson and his brother, Don, remember Christmas tree lights that were forever burning out. "The lights are so reliable now," Victor Richardson said, "nothing like they used to be. I remember they burned out all the time and they ran in a series, so if one burned out they all went out. We'd have to go from one bulb to the next until we found the one that went out and replace it."

The presents under the tree were also a bit different, according to the Richardsons. "We mostly got practical gifts," Victor Richardson said. "My dad was a carpenter down on the waterfront and we usually got some kind of tool. I remember one year I got a jigsaw. I still have it," he said. "We also got things like mittens and hats. We'd get one gift that we really wanted, like a sled or a wagon, and the rest were practical."

Both of the Richardsons remember celebrating Christmas dinner with family and rituals like picking out a Christmas tree. "We'd go out with my father every year and pick out a real tree," Don Richardson said. "Times were different then," Victor Richardson said, remembering his job shaking out the family's coal stove. "There wasn't any central heat back then. We had an old anthracite coal stove in the basement and I'd have to go down and turn the crank to shake out the ashes," he said. "Those were depression times, but Christmastime was still exciting."

Christmas was certainly an exciting time for the Largess family when their children were small. Cliff and Mary Largess are a Navy family who raised their eight children here in Jamestown. "I found Jamestown by accident," Mary Largess said. After coming to meet her husband in Newport with their eight children, she was having trouble finding housing. "When I'd tell them we had eight kids and a dog, suddenly everything had already been rented," she said. Finally, she said, a cousin suggested taking the boat over to Jamestown where the family found a house big enough for all of them at last.

The family settled in and one Christmas, Mary, a seamstress, made a Santa suit for Cliff and a Mrs. Claus suit for herself. That started a 15-year tradition of Cliff playing Santa, according to the couple. "I dressed up as Santa and went to see the kindergarten and first grade classes. I also went around to families we knew who asked me to visit," Cliff Largess said. Largess said he has a lot of wonderful memories of that time and a few sad memories. "I remember a number of children climbing up on my lap and wetting their pants," he said with a laugh, "but I also remember one little boy who responded, 'I'd like a Daddy,' when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas." Mostly the memories were good though, according to the Largess'. Cliff Largess especially remembers the faces of the children who, after discovering their own fathers had been dressing up as Santa, announced, "I know who Santa Claus is." Cliff Largess would conspire with these fathers to show up dressed as Santa while their fathers were in the room. They'd all get a kick out of the expressions on the kids' faces, Cliff Largess said.

Some of Prescott Froberg's best Christmas memories involve outdoor lights. "We've always had Christmas lights all around the house," Froberg said. "Every year it seems we've gotten more lights." For years, he did all of the decorating, Froberg said, but now his children have taken over the tradition. "My son Kevin did all the lights this year," he said.

"We owe it all to Kevin," Froberg's wife Florence added. The Frobergs have five children and they have all continued the family's Christmas traditions. "One year," Froberg said, "my daughter Karen had two Christmas trees in the house, she likes it so much." Froberg also remembered Christmas' past when they'd put their children in a horse drawn sled and go sleigh riding. "We had horses then and a pony," Froberg said, "We'd put the kids in the sleigh and they'd go riding all through the fields." Froberg remembers his own childhood growing up on a farm. "We had sheep and cows and horses," he said, "and at Christmastime we'd decorate the horses with big bows."

Debbie Swistak and her sister, Carol Anderson, owners of Jamestown Designs, have two very special memories of Christmas during their childhood in Jamestown. "The biggest thing I remember," Swistak said, "was Santa coming to the fire station. We had one Santa in Jamestown every year so we really believed he was the one."

The other memory that stays with Swistak and Anderson is the colored lights that decorated the town. "The Rotary Club would sponsor the decorations and the fire department would put them up," Swistak said. "Jamestown was such a sleepy little town then and the lights were so colorful and beautiful."

As we reflect back on memories of Christmases past, here's hoping this Christmas Season brings a host of beautiful new memories to you and yours. Merry Christmas, Jamestown!

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