The presence of a Christmas past

By Patricia Meade

No BB gun for the boy whose father was a cop and whose grandfathers were ministers.

Those who “beat up Ivory Snow flakes in water and threw it on the tree” remember Christmas 1958.

“It was supposed to look like snow. It didn’t,” said John Senzarin, laughing at the memory of crude tree flocking with laundry detergent.

Decorations, he said, were simple and ugly then — but they’re not remembered that way until you dig out old photos.

John, 66, grew up on the South Side; his wife, Alice, 62, on the West Side. They live in Austintown, and spent a couple of hours at their dining room table thinking back to that Christmas long ago. Talking about it brought smiles and a few belly laughs.

Fifty years ago, boys and adventurous girls risked scorching fingers with electric wood-burning kits (the tool’s hot tip let you be creative with designs traced on wood or leather), disfiguring floors with goo from chemistry sets and heard endless warnings about putting someone’s eye out with BB guns. Little girls, despite cautions, ran with the scissors they used to cut out Betsy McCall paper doll clothes.

Santa lap sitters asked for Mr. Potato Head; the Cootie game; Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers or Matt Dillon “Gunsmoke” guns; Brownie flash cameras; Viewmaster (move the wheel and see 3D pictures of exotic places); cowboy, cowgirl or Indian suits; Lionel trains; Betsy Westy dolls; Radio Flyer “little red” wagons; Paint By Number kits; paper dolls; cash registers (to play store); bikes and sleds. There was more to ask for, but Santa’s elves had to keep the line moving.

Grown-ups gave one another cartons of cigarettes ($2.25) and Seagram’s 7 Crown ($3.67). They puffed while sipping “highballs.”

The simplistic-yet-addictive Hula Hoop made its debut that summer and earned a mention in 1958’s wildly successful “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” with furry superstars Alvin, Simon and Theodore: “Hurry Christmas, hurry fast; Want a plane that loops the loop; Me, I want a Hula Hoop.”

A 45-rpm record player was under the tree for 12-year-old Alice — Beaudis before she was Senzarin — along with Ricky Nelson and Elvis records. She already had a Hula Hoop (“it was amazing, the first aerobics”) and can still sing most of the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late.”

Speaking as the 16-year-old “motorhead” he was in 1958, with a license and a 1950 Ford, her husband, John, had this to say about the Hula Hoop: “That was so uncool.”

His 45-rpm record collection, though, includes the Chipmunks’ Christmas song.

His wood-burning kit and Erector Set made way for car stuff a half century ago but the love of playing with his American Flyer train, which used liquid smoke in the engine stack, lasted well into his late teens. His pals all had Lionel trains, but he convinced himself that his was truer scale.

Alice got a wood-burning kit, Paint By Number, Monopoly, “vanity set” (fancy comb, brush and mirror) and ice skates. She recalled walking home with her clothes smelling like the bonfires that burned brightly at the skating pond off Bears Den Road. It was, she said, a safer time.

“I remember getting a microscope, too. Microscopes were big then,” she said. “What did I look at? Drops of water, piece of hair, a bug.”

Stopping at each tree lot on Mahoning Avenue, looking for the perfect live Christmas tree with her family, is one of her favorite childhood memories. Decorations weren’t elaborate then, she said, mostly tinsel.

“We sold trees in ’58, cut down 600 in Pennsylvania and had a lot in the McGuffey Plaza,” her husband said. “Top price was $6 for a picture-perfect tree. The average price was $2 to $3.”

The Senzarins, each Christmas, prepare foods that reflect their ethnic backgrounds. He’s Italian-Serbian, she’s Hungarian-Russian. His Italian Christmas Eve required a multicourse seafood feast, star cookies, pasta and wedding soup. Alice’s family had Hungarian blood sausage that she never ate, sauerkraut mushroom soup, pierogi and lots of calorie-packed pastries such as kolache.

As a child, John and the youngest of his four sisters were told that, because their hands were small, the task of rolling tiny meatballs for wedding soup fell to them. He’s sure it was a scam perpetrated by the older sisters.

He and his wife, a week or so before Christmas, turn their home into a veritable wedding soup factory. A cast-iron flat plate with holes makes 210 miniature meat “barrels.” No tiny hands are necessary, although the grandkids, knowing Santa’s watching, help out.

Back to toys.

A love of models — the smaller the pieces, the better — is one of Betty Bogan’s Christmas memories. She grew up on the East Side and now lives in Coitsville.

“That Christmas, I was 10, and I got a model ship, it was blue and gray. I got Paint By Number, too, and clothes — always got clothes,” she said. “I remember getting paper dolls, the kind you cut out the clothes and put on the doll with tabs. Yeah, I had a Hula Hoop but probably got that in the summer.”

She loved Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (“they were a big deal for me”) and found under the tree Dale Evans cowgirl clothes and a Roy Rogers cap pistol. She figures the cap pistol showed up because it was considered safer than a BB gun.

Bogan got a chemistry set, too, but doesn’t recall any mishaps. She concedes, though, with a chuckle, that memories fade after 50 years.

Her mother filled shoeboxes for each child with lots of exotic nuts, one perfect orange and one perfect apple. It was, she said, such a wonderful tradition.

Toys then were more hands-on and required imagination, she said. The family loved to play games, especially Chinese checkers and Sorry!

Sure, she sat on Santa’s lap to recite her wish list. “I believed until almost junior high, I was so gullible.”

Christmas food meant chitterlings, sweet potato pie, dumplings with gravy and hog head cheese, served with crackers. “My brother, to this day, makes the hog head cheese and brings it over,” she said.

Church services for kids at Christmastime required memorizing and reciting religious verses; the older you were, the more lines you had to memorize. Laughing at the vision in her mind, Bogan said: “It was horrible, horrible! You had to do a little bow and you better not forget the words.”

Alvin Ware, 59, of Youngstown also recalls being compelled, no excuses, to recite in church. That stage fright for him ranked right up with Christmas grade-school plays attended by whole families.

Performance issues aside, Ware wasn’t allowed to have a BB gun.

“I tried everything I could but my father was a policeman in Struthers, a juvenile officer, he saw what kids did, he was afraid I’d put somebody’s eye out,” Ware said. “Plus, both my grandfathers were ministers so there was no way.”

Santa did come through with the other toy all boys wanted.

“I got a Lionel train, the engine puffed smoke. No, no Hula Hoop, my sisters got them, it was a girly toy,” he said. “I got a Radio Flyer red wagon, everybody got a wagon and a sled, and I got the Hopalong Cassidy guns and holsters and a lot of trucks. I also remember a doctor kit with a stethoscope.”

It didn’t take much, he said with a smile, to please kids then; there certainly weren’t the pricey electronic games and toys you find today. Also, the toys were metal, not plastic, and made in America, he said.

Ware’s cherished Christmas memories include shopping downtown, seeing the big department stores’ window displays and sitting on Santa’s lap.

“A 9-year-old now wouldn’t sit on Santa’s lap but a 9-year-old then would,” he said. “I heard suspicions at school from older kids [about Santa’s authenticity] but figured they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Dorothy Kobly, 76, doesn’t remember boys’ toys. She had girls on her 1958 Christmas shopping list — Debbie, 3, and 1-year-old twins Beth (now a municipal judge) and Pam. The last daughter wasn’t born until three years later and she didn’t buy boys’ toys until the grandkids came along.

“I tried the Hula Hoop,” she said, laughing as she recalled being told how easy it was to master. “I couldn’t do it, just couldn’t do it.”

Her shopping was easy for Debbie — dolls, doll strollers, doll clothes and doll cases to hold the clothes. The twins got stuffed animals. Not much you could buy for 1-year-olds.

When the twins sat on Santa’s lap for a photo they took turns “bawling,” but that wasn’t a deterrent — “I always took them anyhow,” Kobly said.

She’s still in the West Side house that holds all those precious memories and photos.

For a traditional Slovak Christmas Eve dinner, Kobly made bobalky, baked dough balls mixed with sauerkraut and butter; mushroom soup; ham and kielbasa. Tradition also called for Oplatki wafers from Holy Name Church dipped in honey and eaten before the meal.

On Christmas Day, there was stuffed cabbage, more ham, breaded chicken (“if I was in the mood”) and scalloped potatoes. The pastries? Nut rolls, poppyseed rolls and little kiffels, a kolache filled with apricot.

Kobly keeps up a tradition passed down from her grandmother, who said on Christmas Eve the animals talk and you have to give them a few chunks of bobalky.

“We always had dogs and I always gave them the bobalky. Now I do that for my grandson’s dog,” Kobly said.

What did her grandmother say the animals talked about? She grinned and answered: “I don’t know, she never said, we didn’t ask.”

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