If You Ask Me by Eleanor Roosevelt

If You Ask Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt

December 1960

 

Last year, I told you about Christmas in the White House, and this year, I have been asked to tell you about the kind of Christmas we had when I was a little girl.

The first Christmas I have any real recollection of was when I was living with my grandmother. I was eight years old, and it was the Christmas following my mother's death. My father had come up from Virginia, where he was living. Though my grandmother and my aunts still carried on the fiction that Santa Claus filled our stockings, my father filled a stocking for me, and my grandmother and aunts filled another. The little girl who had gone to bed hoping she could stay awake and see who really filled her stocking awoke to find not one but two lumpy stockings hanging on the end of her bed.

In both were the traditional oranges, nuts, and candy, but my father had put in things a little girl could wear—a pair of white gloves, a pretty handkerchief, several hair ribbons, and a little gold pin. In the other stocking, there were more utilitarian gifts, a toothbrush, some soap, a washcloth or two, and also puzzles and small games, pencils, and a pencil sharpener. We were in the big house at 11 West Thirty-Seventh Street in New York, and Christmas dinner was held in the late afternoon, around six o'clock, so the children could stay up and join in the carol singing after dinner. My aunt Pussie played the piano, and all of us sang. My father had a good voice and was a great favorite with both Pussie and Maude, my two younger aunts. The carols we sang have remained the same from that day to this, and "Silent Night" is still my favorite Christmas song.

The tree was lighted, and there were presents under it. I remember only one of these—my father's gift of a puppy. My father bred fox terriers in Virginia, and he had brought this puppy because he knew I would love to have something to care for and call my own. Manlike, he had forgotten the necessity for a city dog to be housebroken, so our complications began almost as soon as the puppy entered the household. My aunts loved dogs, however, and no matter how much of a nuisance he made of himself, they were willing to help me take care of him.

In those days, nobody had electric lights on the trees. We had real candles, and there was always a big bucket of water and, near it, a sponge tied to someone's walking cane, so that if the candles sputtered, they could be put out promptly. The tree must have been trimmed by my aunts and my grandmother, because I have no recollection of being included at that early age. My aunts nearly always had friends who came to join us because they were far away from home.

I cannot remember that we had anything different in the way of food for Christmas dinner—oyster soup to start with, roast turkey, sausage-and-chestnut stuffing, and there were plum pudding and ice cream for dessert.

In my grandmother's house, the servants always came into the living room in the early morning, right after breakfast, and were given their presents and wished a Merry Christmas.

After the servants had received their presents, all of us were expected to go to a Christmas-morning church service.

After church, it was my grandmother's habit to stop and see her mother, a very old lady, who lived on East Twenty-Fourth Street. The church we attended was Calvary, on Fourth Avenue and Twenty-First Street, so it was a short walk to her house. I remember her sitting in a high-backed chair in the rear living room, which overlooked the back yard. She must have been a beautiful woman when young, though I remember her as sharp-featured and thin. When she was angry, she tapped on the floor with her cane, and she could reach some distance to castigate a recalcitrant daughter or granddaughter who tried to stay out of her reach! As a rule, she kept a jar of cookies beside her and handed them out among her young visitors. Many tales were told of this lady's temper when she was a young woman. She was a Miss Livingston, a descendant of Chancellor Livingston, and she married Edward H. Ludlow, a real-estate broker in New York City. Her only two children, a boy and a girl, were born eighteen years apart, and I think that all her life she looked upon her daughter, Molly—my grandmother—as a child, which perhaps was one of the reasons my grandfather Valentine G. Hall always treated my grandmother as a child!

I can't remember that our Christmas call on Great-Grandmother was ever rewarded with any Christmas presents, nor do I recall taking her any gift. This seems to me odd, for, from the time I was a little girl, for weeks before Christmas I was busy making presents.

My brothers had an Alsatian nurse, who was supposed to teach me to sew. On the whole, I think she did a pretty good job, for I remember innumerable small sachets made by hand and often embroidered, which I gave to my aunts and my grandmother and anyone else I could think of who would enjoy them. For my uncles and my father, I made handkerchief cases and pouches to carry their tobacco in. I even attempted a handkerchief sometimes, which I realize now they could probably never use. But the love and effort that went into these early Christmas presents were greater by far than what I feel today when I simply choose things in a shop.

As I grew older, I do not remember that we had much in the way of family celebration, because my grandmother became involved in the difficulties of her own children, and we were often separated. I went abroad to school at the age of fifteen and spent my first Christmas with an aunt, Mrs. Mortimer, at Claridge's in London. She had a Christmas tree for her own small children and for me. There were presents for all of us, and once again, I awoke to a Christmas stocking full of small gifts.

After that, I spent Christmas with another student in Paris, and as she was younger than I, I was determined to see she had a nice holiday. I spent all my allowance in seeing that this little English girl, whose parents were in India, had a real Christmas. Later, we spent another Christmas together in Rome with Mademoiselle Souvestre, and that was a memorable occasion. We saw the magnificent spectacle of St. Peter's lighted up for the Christmas season, and we were allowed to go to visit the Flea Market.

After my marriage, my youngest brother came to live with us, and we two observed the Christmas customs of my husband's family. Everyone hung up a stocking on Christmas Eve—young and old alike. We attended church service on Christmas morning, as a rule, but I also went to the midnight service on Christmas Eve, so the religious aspects and significance of the Christmas celebration were never out of my mind.

My husband's mother had collected tree decorations from all over the world, and I have done the same ever since. My husband had an aversion to anything but wax candles on the tree, and until after his death, we always used them, and never electric-light bulbs. The family also had a crèche under the Christmas tree, with small ceramic figures.

All the people on the place came at four o'clock in the afternoon to shake hands, receive Christmas presents and our Merry Christmas wishes, and then they would go to the kitchen-dining room for ice cream, cake, and coffee. We would proceed to open our presents, and usually in the evening, we had Christmas dinner, though as the years went on and little children began to be part of the family celebration, the hour was often changed to the midday meal.

On Christmas Eve, my husband always read Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," usually beginning after tea, stopping in the middle of the story so we could dress and eat dinner, and finishing after dinner. He rarely read the whole story, but picked out parts the young children would enjoy and then read most of the rest of it during the evening. Occasionally, my mother-in-law or my husband's cousin would play a few traditional Christmas carols, but there was much less stress on the songs than on the reading of "A Christmas Carol."

This pattern, which my brother and I fell into, became my own pattern from then on, and I have told you how we tried to follow it, even in the White House.

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About this document

If You Ask Me, December 1960

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
[ ERPP bio | VIAF | WorldCat | DPLA | SNAC ]

McCall's, volume 88, December 1960

Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Digital edition published 2014, 2016 by
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
The George Washington University
Old Main Building, Suite 406
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Washington, DC