An Old-Fashioned Christmas at Pardee Square
by Molly Roe
“A tree? In the house?” Pat and James laughed when I shook my head at the doings in the parlor. Mrs. Pardee had ordered the strongest servants to remove some heavy pieces of furniture to make room for a ten foot tree.
“The ways of the wealthy are strange, Katie. When you have too much money it scrambles your brain,” said James.
“Guess my senses will never be addled then,” I said.
“Mrs. Pardee imported all the decorations and candle-holders from Germany. Christmas trees are a popular tradition there,” said Pat.
“Here, here, get to work and stop gossiping about your betters,” said Mrs. Lane, who had only heard Pat’s last comment. Mrs. Lane directed the staff in decorating the branches with candles, glass balls, and tin ornaments. James’s towering height and long arms were needed to reach the highest branches. The candles sat on the boughs in cleverly designed pendulum holders that were balanced by weighted stars. With the candles lit, the dangling glass balls and tin ornaments reflected a soft radiance. Baby Frank reached out a chubby hand to grasp the colorful objects, but his nursery maid whisked him out of range. Once the evergreen was in place, I had to admit the piney aroma and cheerful appearance was a welcome change from the parlor’s usual stuffy atmosphere. A Christmas tree was a lot of work, but the finished product was lovely. As I stepped back to admire the effect, small fists tugged on my uniform skirt.
“Katie, Katie, look how I stayed in the lines!” Six-year-old Bart Pardee and his older brother, Izzie, were helping to decorate, cutting out Thomas Nast’s newspaper sketches of Santa Claus and coloring them. I complimented the boys and cut pieces of tinsel garland to tie their artwork onto the tree.
My favorite display was the three-tiered pyramid contraption on a side table. The draft created by small red candles moved wooden paddle blades, and a carved Nativity scene twirled before my fascinated eyes. I wished my sisters could see the delights. At least I was able to take the stubs when the candles were replaced. I would send them to Murphy’s Patch so a candle would remain burning in our window through the Christmas season.
One afternoon Mrs. Pardee announced a shopping trip to the Kristkindlmarkt in Pottsville. The outside fair would feature imported gift items for Christmas. German cuckoo clocks, Moravian stars, creche scenes, and intricate toys for the younger children were among the items for sale.
Mrs. P. planned to buy a large ceramic stein. She started planning a trip by train to the city. The most exciting news was that I would attend Mrs. Pardee and the children.
On the day of departure, we hustled to the station with enough luggage for several days. Porters carried the bags onto the train, but I would be in charge of everything once we were on board. A reddish-brown car with crisp gold lettering was already pulled up at the siding. I was more excited than Izzie and Bart since we were traveling in a luxury box with soft leather seats and plush velvet hangings for privacy. Our tickets gave us access to the lounge car and other exclusive areas that I had never seen before. To give Mrs. Pardee some quiet time, I took the two children for a walk through the cars to the observation deck.
“Oh, look at the horses in the field… and the hex sign on that barn.” I pointed out the green-glazed windows at highlights of the landscape to keep the children occupied. When we went back to our berth, we played counting and memory games until the children were lulled into naps. The lurching of the train stopping at Pottsville station awoke the children, and we gathered our possessions and left the car.
A coachman was waiting for us at the brick P&R station when we alit from the train amidst a cloud of steam, and he swept us by carriage to Pennsylvania Hall where a luxury suite was set aside for the Pardees. Visiting coal barons to the Schuylkill County seat always stayed in the hotel’s deluxe accommodations. Even my room, on the least exclusive floor, was delightful. I bounced onto the wide bed and giggled as I was almost launched off the other side.
I freshened up and had a cold luncheon before going to the outdoor market with Mrs. Pardee and her sons. The street scene was bustling with excitement. Large kegs at the intersections blocked out traffic to provide safe travel for pedestrians through small wooden booths and canvas-covered displays.
Mrs. Pardee examined and ordered many items. Some were to be personalized or created especially to her taste. The children wove between people in the crowd and raced each other from booth to booth.
“Boys, stop!” I chased them down a crowded lane and scolded them. “Your mother is looking for you.”
“Mother, can I buy something?” asked Bart, pointing at a toy display.
“Nothing for yourself, but you may purchase something for your brothers and sister.”
Mrs. Pardee took note of their choices for Christmas gifts. The long day was beginning to wear on the boys, and they started to push each other and bicker.
“Time to return to the hotel,” said Mrs. Pardee amidst complaints from her sons.
Once Izzie and Bart were settled with a maid from the hotel to oversee their supper, Mrs. Pardee and I returned to the market to choose items for the children. By five o’clock the vendors had fires and lamps lit to allow their customers to see their merchandise. The festive scene was very enjoyable and since I was wearing my warmest outer garments, including gloves and scarf, the bite of the cold air did not affect my pleasure. Every breath filled my lungs with the smell of chestnuts, pretzels or spicy sausages roasting on open grates. Candles, incense, toasted candied peanuts, gingerbread, and other exotic scents mingled in the air. Laughter and music met my ears. It was as much a social event as it was a market.
My employer smiled and discussed the merchandise with the vendors, but her good mood disappeared when time came to order. Spoiled by the constant pandering of merchants in Hazleton and Philadelphia, Mrs. Pardee was dumbstruck that she would have to wait for some of the items.
Turning to me with a stern look she said, “You’ll have to stay in the city two extra days to collect my purchases and ensure their quality.”
“Yes, M’am.” I answered in a demure way, but beneath my composed face I was delighted.
Annoyed that she would have to take the trip back without my help, Mrs. P. pushed a purse into my hands and gave me last minute instructions. The money was to pay for the orders, for cab fare and tips, and for the return trip to Hazleton. She and the children bustled off to the station to catch the train home.
Early the next morning I set out on my mission. One of the bellboys was especially friendly. He called a cab and refused the tip I offered.
“Sure you need the money more than I do, darlin’. Buy yourself something at the fair.”
The cab lurched off before I could refuse the bellboy’s generosity, but I had an idea of what I’d buy with the unexpected spending money. The leather seat sighed as I settled into it.
I paid the driver and stepped onto the slate sidewalk. I thought about what I could buy my parents and sisters at the market. The small drawstring bag in which I kept my money clinked as I jiggled it. I wished that I had more money. It would be difficult to stretch the funds four ways.
Just as the thought entered my mind, I had a brainstorm. The ticket! I searched through my bag and located the return ticket that Mrs. Pardee pushed into my hand last night. It was a first class seat! My emotions soared. I could exchange the expensive ticket for a cheap seat in a combination car. I didn’t mind traveling with the ordinary passengers and baggage, especially since it meant several extra dollars in my purse.
I sallied off to the street fair feeling like a wealthy capitalist. My first purchase was simple. I decided to purchase some fragrant spices and a cookie press shaped like an angel for my mother, the baker.
The next stall has wonderful three-tiered pyramids like the one at Pardee Square. The carving and paintwork on the tiny figures was exquisite, but the prices were far beyond my pocketbook. Fortunately a little farther along I came to a booth with small German woodcarvings. One piece, depicting a trio of girls playing Ring a-ring o’roses, reminded me of my sisters and me in early childhood. My father would appreciate both the subject and the quality of the piece, so I added that gift to my basket.
My sisters would be happy with some candy, but should it be fudge, sugar mice, parma violets, barley toy candy, or rock candy strings? Apothecary-style jars lined the open shelves in the rear of the stand with more choices than I had ever seen in one place. The colorful and tempting plate of broken candy for sampling helped with my decision. Red and green barley pops finished my shopping list.
I swung the string-wrapped parcels and imagined my family’s delight on Christmas morning. I collected the merchandise for Mrs. Pardee and returned to the hotel. Passing my friend the bellboy, I smiled and told him that my little sisters would appreciate his kindness on Christmas morning.
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Thank you, Molly, for this lovely holiday story from the wonderful "Call Me Kate"...a very nostalgic story indeed!