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A Remembrance of Christmas Past
By Florence Holub
Thanks to a kindly letter in the November issue (sent in by Bernard C. Winn), I was encouraged to offer another "golden oldie" from my past columns in the Noe Valley Voice. This one is reprinted from the December 1988/January 1989 issue.
I hope you enjoy it. Happy holidays!
Whenever I pass the Latvian Church in the 400 block of
Hoffman Avenue, I am reminded of a time 60 years ago when the building was occupied by the Finnish Brotherhood and known as "Finn Hall."
A large Finnish colony -- large enough to support several steam bath establishments -- once resided in the Noe and Eureka valleys. My parents were of Swede-Finn stock, meaning they came from a Swedish minority living in Finland. Like all newcomers to a strange land, they felt a need to meet with their countrymen in the Bay Area. Outside of the steam baths, the Order of Runesberg and the Star of Finland lodges met this need by providing a year-round calendar filled with social events, the biggest of which took place at Finn Hall.
The building, now owned by the Latvian Lutheran Church of California, looks small from the front, but the facade is deceptive. Beyond the entrance is a large dance floor with a raised stage at the rear. And in the old days, behind and below the stage were piled all the fixings needed to feed a mob, present a play, or have a ball.
I remember the annual Christmas Festival most clearly because it was designed for and around children like myself. Weeks of preparation preceded the December event: refreshments had to be planned and prepared, toys and candy for the many children had to be purchased and wrapped, and the entertainment provided by the children had to be rehearsed for months.
There was one particular Fest -- in the early 1920s -- that stands out in my memory. I was to recite "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Rather lengthy for a 7-year-old, don't you think? But I had it memorized perfectly.
On the big night, the master of ceremonies announced each child's presentation to the large audience of doting parents and relatives. When my turn came, I walked bravely to the center of the stage and gazed out at the hundreds of faces looking up at me. I opened my mouth to speak, but at the same time, a small friend in the front row piped up, "There's Florence! Hello, Florence!"
Perhaps that little voice was what triggered it, but in any case I started to titter. The stage manager wisely drew the curtains, gave me a little time to compose myself, then reopened them. This time, instead of a poem, a stream of giggles flowed out of me, and the curtain had to be drawn again. After my third attempt, which yielded only intensified giggling, I was sent back to my seat, feeling some relief but mostly painful humiliation.
I never did recite the poem that I had practiced so diligently.
Naturally, the other children performed well. A small boy struggled with a big accordion, several teenagers played classical compositions on the piano, and quite a few adorable little tykes sang off-key renditions of "Jingle Bells."
At the conclusion of the program, Santa (who always had a Swedish accent) bounded into the hall singing "Yingle Bells, Yingle Bells" and
shouting "Ho, ho, ho!"
The children excitedly lined up to speak to him and to receive their presents, which were usually dolls for the girls, tops or carpenter sets for the boys, and, of course, lots of candy.
Next, the refreshments were served-- delicious open-faced sandwiches, ice cream and cake, milk for the young, and coffee for the adults.
On the stage, the musicians tuned up their fiddles, and when the floor was cleared, a man hurried about, tossing powdered wax on the dance floor. He was followed by a procession of active little boys, who used this opportunity to skate and skid. Some lost control on the slippery surface of the floor, and a few went home with knots on their heads.
The music and the dancing began. There were foxtrots, polkas, waltzes, and several spirited Scandinavian dances, including the "Hambo" and the "Schottiche." Everyone danced -- old people, young people, even the little kids -- and the adults took care not to trample the children underfoot.
We young danced together, practicing for the day we would be grown up. But it was not unusual to see a grown man dancing cheek-to-cheek with his little girl, her short legs dangling above his knees. After a few hours, we kids were tired and content to sit on the side benches, watching until we fell asleep.
The dancing continued until midnight, when the musicians played "Goodnight, Sweetheart" and every man danced the last dance with his wife or girlfriend.
Our parents had to collect our presents, bundle us up, and carry us sleeping out into the night and home, ending one of the happiest days of the year.
Strangely, in the years that followed, the perfect Christmas pageants--the ones that went without a hitch -- were forgotten, but my flawed performance was long remembered and often brought to my attention at succeeding Christmas fests.
Although it lasted a long time, I eventually got over my shame. So now I'd just like to say to my old friends from Finn Hall, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."