Merry Christmas in the Tenements by Jacob A. Riis
It was just a sprig of holly, with scarlet berries showing against
the green, stuck in, by one of the office boys probably, behind the
sign that pointed the way up to the editorial rooms. There was no
reason why it should have made me start when I came suddenly upon it at
the turn of the stairs; but it did. Perhaps it was because that dingy
hall, given over to dust and draughts all the days of the year, was the
last place in which I expected to meet with any sign of Christmas;
perhaps it was because I myself had nearly forgotten the holiday.
Whatever the cause, it gave me quite a turn.
I stood, and stared at it. It looked dry, almost withered. Probably
it had come a long way. Not much holly grows about Printing-House
Square, except in the colored supplements, and that is scarcely of a
kind to stir tender memories. Withered and dry, this did. I thought,
with a twinge of conscience, of secret little conclaves of my children,
of private views of things hidden from mamma at the bottom of drawers,
of wild flights when papa appeared unbidden in the door, which I had
allowed for once to pass unheeded. Absorbed in the business of the
office, I had hardly thought of Christmas coming on, until now it was
here. And this sprig of holly on the wall that had come to remind
me,come nobody knew how far,did it grow yet in the beech-wood
clearings, as it did when I gathered it as a boy, tracking through the
snow? Christ-thorn we called it in our Danish tongue. The red
berries, to our simple faith, were the drops of blood that fell from
the Saviour's brow as it drooped under its cruel crown upon the cross.
Back to the long ago wandered my thoughts: to the moss-grown beech
in which I cut my name and that of a little girl with yellow curls, of
blessed memory, with the first jack-knife I ever owned; to the
story-book with the little fir tree that pined because it was small,
and because the hare jumped over it, and would not be content though
the wind and the sun kissed it, and the dews wept over it and told it
to rejoice in its young life; and that was so proud when, in the second
year, the hare had to go round it, because then it knew it was getting
big,Hans Christian Andersen's story that we loved above all the rest;
for we knew the tree right well, and the hare; even the tracks it left
in the snow we had seen. Ah, those were the Yule-tide seasons, when the
old Domkirke shone with a thousand wax candles on Christmas eve; when
all business was laid aside to let the world make merry one whole week;
when big red apples were roasted on the stove, and bigger doughnuts
were baked within it for the long feast! Never such had been known
since. Christmas to-day is but a name, a memory.
A door slammed below, and let in the noises of the street. The holly
rustled in the draught. Some one going out said, A Merry Christmas to
you all! in a big, hearty voice. I awoke from my revery to find myself
back in New York with a glad glow at the heart. It was not true. I had
only forgotten. It was myself that had changed, not Christmas. That was
here, with the old cheer, the old message of good-will, the old royal
road to the heart of mankind. How often had I seen its blessed charity,
that never corrupts, make light in the hovels of darkness and despair!
how often watched its spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion in those
who had, besides themselves, nothing to give! and as often the sight
had made whole my faith in human nature. No! Christmas was not of the
past, its spirit not dead. The lad who fixed the sprig of holly on the
stairs knew it; my reporter's note-book bore witness to it. Witness of
my contrition for the wrong I did the gentle spirit of the holiday,
here let the book tell the story of one Christmas in the tenements of
It is evening in Grand Street. The shops east and west are pouring
forth their swarms of workers. Street and sidewalk are filled with an
eager throng of young men and women, chatting gayly, and elbowing the
jam of holiday shoppers that linger about the big stores. The
street-cars labor along, loaded down to the steps with passengers
carrying bundles of every size and odd shape. Along the curb a string
of pedlers hawk penny toys in push-carts with noisy clamor, fearless
for once of being moved on by the police. Christmas brings a two weeks'
respite from persecution even to the friendless street-fakir. From the
window of one brilliantly lighted store a bevy of mature dolls in
dishabille stretch forth their arms appealingly to a troop of
factory-hands passing by. The young men chaff the girls, who shriek
with laughter and run. The policeman on the corner stops beating his
hands together to keep warm, and makes a mock attempt to catch them,
whereat their shrieks rise shriller than ever. Them stockin's o' yourn
'll be the death o' Santa Claus! he shouts after them, as they dodge.
And they, looking back, snap saucily, Mind yer business, freshy! But
their laughter belies their words. They giv' it to ye straight that
time, grins the grocer's clerk, come out to snatch a look at the
crowds; and the two swap holiday greetings.
At the corner, where two opposing tides of travel form an eddy, the
line of push-carts debouches down the darker side street. In its gloom
their torches burn with a fitful glare that wakes black shadows among
the trusses of the railroad structure overhead. A woman, with worn
shawl drawn tightly about head and shoulders, bargains with a pedler
for a monkey on a stick and two cents' worth of flitter-gold. Five
ill-clad youngsters flatten their noses against the frozen pane of the
toy-shop, in ecstasy at something there, which proves to be a milk
wagon, with driver, horses, and cans that can be unloaded. It is
something their minds can grasp. One comes forth with a penny goldfish
of pasteboard clutched tightly in his hand, and, casting cautious
glances right and left, speeds across the way to the door of a
tenement, where a little girl stands waiting. It's yer Chris'mas,
Kate, he says, and thrusts it into her eager fist. The black doorway
swallows them up.
Across the narrow yard, in the basement of the rear house, the
lights of a Christmas tree show against the grimy window pane. The hare
would never have gone around it, it is so very small. The two children
are busily engaged fixing the goldfish upon one of its branches. Three
little candles that burn there shed light upon a scene of utmost
desolation. The room is black with smoke and dirt. In the middle of the
floor oozes an oil-stove that serves at once to take the raw edge off
the cold and to cook the meals by. Half the window panes are broken,
and the holes stuffed with rags. The sleeve of an old coat hangs out of
one, and beats drearily upon the sash when the wind sweeps over the
fence and rattles the rotten shutters. The family wash, clammy and
gray, hangs on a clothes-line stretched across the room. Under it, at a
table set with cracked and empty plates, a discouraged woman sits eying
the children's show gloomily. It is evident that she has been drinking.
The peaked faces of the little ones wear a famished look. There are
threethe third an infant, put to bed in what was once a baby
carriage. The two from the street are pulling it around to get the tree
in range. The baby sees it, and crows with delight. The boy shakes a
branch, and the goldfish leaps and sparkles in the candle-light.
See, sister! he pipes; see Santa Claus! And they clap their
hands in glee. The woman at the table wakes out of her stupor, gazes
around her, and bursts into a fit of maudlin weeping.
The door falls to. Five flights up, another opens upon a bare attic
room which a patient little woman is setting to rights. There are only
three chairs, a box, and a bedstead in the room, but they take a deal
of careful arranging. The bed hides the broken plaster in the wall
through which the wind came in; each chair-leg stands over a rat-hole,
at once to hide it and to keep the rats out. One is left; the box is
for that. The plaster of the ceiling is held up with pasteboard
patches. I know the story of that attic. It is one of cruel desertion.
The woman's husband is even now living in plenty with the creature for
whom he forsook her, not a dozen blocks away, while she keeps the home
together for the childer. She sought justice, but the lawyer demanded
a retainer; so she gave it up, and went back to her little ones. For
this room that barely keeps the winter wind out she pays four dollars a
month, and is behind with the rent. There is scarce bread in the house;
but the spirit of Christmas has found her attic. Against a broken wall
is tacked a hemlock branch, the leavings of the corner grocer's
fitting-block; pink string from the packing-counter hangs on it in
festoons. A tallow dip on the box furnishes the illumination. The
children sit up in bed, and watch it with shining eyes.
We're having Christmas! they say.
The lights of the Bowery glow like a myriad twinkling stars upon the
ceaseless flood of humanity that surges ever through the great highway
of the homeless. They shine upon long rows of lodging-houses, in which
hundreds of young men, cast helpless upon the reef of the strange city,
are learning their first lessons of utter loneliness; for what
desolation is there like that of the careless crowd when all the world
rejoices? They shine upon the tempter setting his snares there, and
upon the missionary and the Salvation Army lass, disputing his catch
with him; upon the police detective going his rounds with coldly
observant eye intent upon the outcome of the contest; upon the wreck
that is past hope, and upon the youth pausing on the verge of the pit
in which the other has long ceased to struggle. Sights and sounds of
Christmas there are in plenty in the Bowery. Balsam and hemlock and fir
stand in groves along the busy thoroughfare, and garlands of green
embower mission and dive impartially. Once a year the old street
recalls its youth with an effort. It is true that it is largely a
commercial effort; that the evergreen, with an instinct that is not of
its native hills, haunts saloon-corners by preference; but the smell of
the pine woods is in the air, andChristmas is not too criticalone
is grateful for the effort. It varies with the opportunity. At
Beefsteak John's it is content with artistically embalming crullers
and mince-pies in green cabbage under the window lamp. Over yonder,
where the mile-post of the old lane still stands,in its unhonored old
age become the vehicle of publishing the latest sure cure to the
world,a florist, whose undenominational zeal for the holiday and
trade outstrips alike distinction of creed and property, has
transformed the sidewalk and the ugly railroad structure into a
veritable bower, spanning it with a canopy of green, under which dwell
with him, in neighborly good-will, the Young Men's Christian
Association and the Jewish tailor next door.
In the next block a turkey-shoot is in progress. Crowds are trying
their luck at breaking the glass balls that dance upon tiny jets of
water in front of a marine view with the moon rising, yellow and big,
out of a silver sea. A man-of-war, with lights burning aloft, labors
under a rocky coast. Groggy sailormen, on shore leave, make unsteady
attempts upon the dancing balls. One mistakes the moon for the target,
but is discovered in season. Don't shoot that, says the man who loads
the guns; there's a lamp behind it. Three scared birds in the window
recess try vainly to snatch a moment's sleep between shots and the
trains that go roaring overhead on the elevated road. Roused by the
sharp crack of the rifles, they blink at the lights in the street, and
peck moodily at a crust in their bed of shavings.
The dime museum gong clatters out its noisy warning that the
lecture is about to begin. From the concert hall, where men sit
drinking beer in clouds of smoke, comes the thin voice of a
short-skirted singer, warbling, Do they think of me at home? The
young fellow who sits near the door, abstractedly making figures in the
wet track of the schooners, buries something there with a sudden
restless turn, and calls for another beer. Out in the street a band
strikes up. A host with banners advances, chanting an unfamiliar hymn.
In the ranks marches a cripple on crutches. Newsboys follow, gaping.
Under the illuminated clock of the Cooper Institute the procession
halts, and the leader, turning his face to the sky, offers a prayer.
The passing crowds stop to listen. A few bare their heads. The devoted
group, the flapping banners, and the changing torch-light on upturned
faces, make a strange, weird picture. Then the drum-beat, and the band
files into its barracks across the street. A few of the listeners
follow, among them the lad from the concert hall, who slinks
shamefacedly in when he thinks no one is looking.
Down at the foot of the Bowery is the pan-handlers' beat, where
the saloons elbow one another at every step, crowding out all other
business than that of keeping lodgers to support them. Within call of
it, across the square, stands a church which, in the memory of men yet
living, was built to shelter the fashionable Baptist audiences of a day
when Madison Square was out in the fields, and Harlem had a foreign
sound. The fashionable audiences are gone long since. To-day the
church, fallen into premature decay, but still handsome in its strong
and noble lines, stands as a missionary outpost in the land of the
enemy, its builders would have said, doing a greater work than they
planned. To-night is the Christmas festival of its English-speaking
Sunday-school, and the pews are filled. The banners of United Italy, of
modern Hellas, of France and Germany and England, hang side by side
with the Chinese dragon and the starry flagsigns of the cosmopolitan
character of the congregation. Greek and Roman Catholics, Jews and
joss-worshippers, go there; few Protestants, and no Baptists. It is
easy to pick out the children in their seats by nationality, and as
easy to read the story of poverty and suffering that stands written in
more than one mother's haggard face, now beaming with pleasure at the
little ones' glee. A gayly decorated Christmas tree has taken the place
of the pulpit. At its foot is stacked a mountain of bundles, Santa
Claus's gifts to the school. A self-conscious young man with soap-locks
has just been allowed to retire, amid tumultuous applause, after
blowing Nearer, my God, to Thee on his horn until his cheeks swelled
almost to bursting. A trumpet ever takes the Fourth Ward by storm. A
class of little girls is climbing upon the platform. Each wears a
capital letter on her breast, and has a piece to speak that begins with
the letter; together they spell its lesson. There is momentary
consternation: one is missing. As the discovery is made, a child pushes
past the doorkeeper, hot and breathless. I am in 'Boundless Love,'
she says, and makes for the platform, where her arrival restores
confidence and the language.
In the audience the befrocked visitor from up-town sits cheek by
jowl with the pigtailed Chinaman and the dark-browed Italian. Up in the
gallery, farthest from the preacher's desk and the tree, sits a Jewish
mother with three boys, almost in rags. A dingy and threadbare shawl
partly hides her poor calico wrap and patched apron. The woman shrinks
in the pew, fearful of being seen; her boys stand upon the benches, and
applaud with the rest. She endeavors vainly to restrain them. Tick,
tick! goes the old clock over the door through which wealth and
fashion went out long years ago, and poverty came in.
Tick, tick! the world moves, with uswithout; without or with. She
is the yesterday, they the to-morrow. What shall the harvest be?
Loudly ticked the old clock in time with the doxology, the other
day, when they cleared the tenants out of Gotham Court down here in
Cherry Street, and shut the iron doors of Single and Double Alley
against them. Never did the world move faster or surer toward a better
day than when the wretched slum was seized by the health officers as a
nuisance unfit longer to disgrace a Christian city. The snow lies deep
in the deserted passageways, and the vacant floors are given over to
evil smells, and to the rats that forage in squads, burrowing in the
neglected sewers. The wall of wrath still towers above the buildings
in the adjoining Alderman's Court, but its wrath at last is wasted.
It was built by a vengeful Quaker, whom the alderman had knocked
down in a quarrel over the boundary line, and transmitted its legacy of
hate to generations yet unborn; for where it stood it shut out sunlight
and air from the tenements of Alderman's Court. And at last it is to
go, Gotham Court and all; and to the going the wall of wrath has
contributed its share, thus in the end atoning for some of the harm it
wrought. Tick! old clock; the world moves. Never yet did Christmas seem
less dark on Cherry Hill than since the lights were put out in Gotham
In The Bend the philanthropist undertaker who buries for what he
can catch on the plate hails the Yule-tide season with a pyramid of
green made of two coffins set on end. It has been a good day, he says
cheerfully, putting up the shutters; and his mind is easy. But the
good days of The Bend are over, too. The Bend itself is all but gone.
Where the old pigsty stood, children dance and sing to the strumming of
a cracked piano-organ propelled on wheels by an Italian and his wife.
The park that has come to take the place of the slum will curtail the
undertaker's profits, as it has lessened the work of the police. Murder
was the fashion of the day that is past. Scarce a knife has been drawn
since the sunlight shone into that evil spot, and grass and green
shrubs took the place of the old rookeries. The Christmas gospel of
peace and good-will moves in where the slum moves out. It never had a
The children follow the organ, stepping in the slush to the music,
bareheaded and with torn shoes, but happy; across the Five Points and
through the Bay,known to the directory as Baxter Street,to the
Divide, still Chatham Street to its denizens, though the aldermen have
rechristened it Park Row. There other delegations of Greek and Italian
children meet and escort the music on its homeward trip. In one of the
crooked streets near the river its journey comes to an end. A battered
door opens to let it in. A tallow dip burns sleepily on the creaking
stairs. The water runs with a loud clatter in the sink: it is to keep
it from freezing. There is not a whole window pane in the hall. Time
was when this was a fine house harboring wealth and refinement. It has
neither now. In the old parlor downstairs a knot of hard-faced men and
women sit on benches about a deal table, playing cards. They have a jug
between them, from which they drink by turns. On the stump of a
mantel-shelf a lamp burns before a rude print of the Mother of God. No
one pays any heed to the hand-organ man and his wife as they climb to
their attic. There is a colony of them up therethree families in four
Come in, Antonio, says the tenant of the double flat,the one
with two rooms,come and keep Christmas. Antonio enters, cap in
hand. In the corner by the dormer-window a crib has been fitted up in
commemoration of the Nativity. A soap-box and two hemlock branches are
the elements. Six tallow candles and a night-light illuminate a
singular collection of rarities, set out with much ceremonial show. A
doll tightly wrapped in swaddling-clothes represents the Child. Over
it stands a ferocious-looking beast, easily recognized as a survival of
the last political campaign,the Tammany tiger,threatening to
swallow it at a gulp if one as much as takes one's eyes off it. A
miniature Santa Claus, a pasteboard monkey, and several other articles
of bric-a-brac of the kind the tenement affords, complete the outfit.
The background is a picture of St. Donato, their village saint, with
the Madonna whom they worship most. But the incongruity harbors no
suggestion of disrespect. The children view the strange show with
genuine reverence, bowing and crossing themselves before it. There are
five, the oldest a girl of seventeen, who works for a sweater, making
three dollars a week. It is all the money that comes in, for the father
has been sick and unable to work eight months and the mother has her
hands full: the youngest is a baby in arms. Three of the children go to
a charity school, where they are fed, a great help, now the holidays
have come to make work slack for sister. The rent is six dollarstwo
weeks' pay out of the four. The mention of a possible chance of light
work for the man brings the daughter with her sewing from the adjoining
room, eager to hear. That would be Christmas indeed! Pietro! She runs
to the neighbors to communicate the joyful tidings. Pietro comes, with
his new-born baby, which he is tending while his wife lies ill, to look
at the maestro, so powerful and good. He also has been out of work for
months, with a family of mouths to fill, and nothing coming in. His
children are all small yet, but they speak English.
What, I say, holding a silver dime up before the oldest, a smart
little chap of sevenwhat would you do if I gave you this?
Get change, he replies promptly. When he is told that it is his
own, to buy toys with, his eyes open wide with wondering incredulity.
By degrees he understands. The father does not. He looks questioningly
from one to the other. When told, his respect increases visibly for
the rich gentleman.
They were villagers of the same community in southern Italy, these
people and others in the tenements thereabouts, and they moved their
patron saint with them. They cluster about his worship here, but the
worship is more than an empty form. He typifies to them the old
neighborliness of home, the spirit of mutual help, of charity, and of
the common cause against the common enemy. The community life survives
through their saint in the far city to an unsuspected extent. The sick
are cared for; the dreaded hospital is fenced out. There are no Italian
evictions. The saint has paid the rent of this attic through two hard
months; and here at his shrine the Calabrian village gathers, in the
persons of these three, to do him honor on Christmas eve.
Where the old Africa has been made over into a modern Italy, since
King Humbert's cohorts struck the up-town trail, three hundred of the
little foreigners are having an uproarious time over their Christmas
tree in the Children's Aid Society's school. And well they may, for the
like has not been seen in Sullivan Street in this generation. Christmas
trees are rather rarer over here than on the East Side, where the
German leavens the lump with his loyalty to home traditions. This is
loaded with silver and gold and toys without end, until there is little
left of the original green. Santa Claus's sleigh must have been upset
in a snow-drift over here, and righted by throwing the cargo overboard,
for there is at least a wagon-load of things that can find no room on
the tree. The appearance of teacher with a double armful of
curly-headed dolls in red, yellow, and green Mother-Hubbards, doubtful
how to dispose of them, provokes a shout of approval, which is
presently quieted by the principal's bell. School is in for the
preliminary exercises. Afterward there are to be the tree and ice-cream
for the good children. In their anxiety to prove their title clear,
they sit so straight, with arms folded, that the whole row bends over
backward. The lesson is brief, the answers to the point.
What do we receive at Christmas? the teacher wants to know. The
whole school responds with a shout, Dolls and toys! To the question,
Why do we receive them at Christmas? the answer is not so prompt. But
one youngster from Thompson Street holds up his hand. He knows.
Because we always get 'em, he says; and the class is convinced: it is
a fact. A baby wails because it cannot get the whole tree at once. The
little motherherself a child of less than a dozen winterswho has
it in charge, cooes over it, and soothes its grief with the aid of a
surreptitious sponge-cake evolved from the depths of teacher's pocket.
Babies are encouraged in these schools, though not originally included
in their plan, as often the one condition upon which the older children
can be reached. Some one has to mind the baby, with all hands out at
The school sings Santa Lucia and Children of the Heavenly King,
and baby is lulled to sleep.
Who is this King? asks the teacher, suddenly, at the end of a
verse. Momentary stupefaction. The little minds are on ice-cream just
then; the lad nearest the door has telegraphed that it is being carried
up in pails. A little fellow on the back seat saves the day. Up goes
his brown fist.
Well, Vito, who is he?
McKinley! pipes the lad, who remembers the election just past; and
the school adjourns for ice-cream.
It is a sight to see them eat it. In a score of such schools, from
the Hook to Harlem, the sight is enjoyed in Christmas week by the men
and women who, out of their own pockets, reimburse Santa Claus for his
outlay, and count it a joy, as well they may; for their beneficence
sometimes makes the one bright spot in lives that have suffered of all
wrongs the most cruel,that of being despoiled of their childhood.
Sometimes they are little Bohemians; sometimes the children of refugee
Jews; and again, Italians, or the descendants of the Irish stock of
Hell's Kitchen and Poverty Row; always the poorest, the shabbiest, the
hungriestthe children Santa Claus loves best to find, if any one will
show him the way. Having so much on hand, he has no time, you see, to
look them up himself. That must be done for him; and it is done. To the
teacher in the Sullivan Street school came one little girl, this last
Christmas, with anxious inquiry if it was true that he came around with
I hanged my stocking last time, she said, and he didn't come at
all. In the front house indeed, he left a drum and a doll, but no
message from him reached the rear house in the alley. Maybe he
couldn't find it, she said soberly. Did the teacher think he would
come if she wrote to him? She had learned to write.
Together they composed a note to Santa Claus, speaking for a doll
and a bellthe bell to play go to school with when she was kept home
minding the baby. Lest he should by any chance miss the alley in spite
of directions, little Rosa was invited to hang her stocking, and her
sister's, with the janitor's children's in the school. And lo! on
Christmas morning there was a gorgeous doll, and a bell that was a
whole curriculum in itself, as good as a year's schooling any day!
Faith in Santa Claus is established in that Thompson Street alley for
this generation at least; and Santa Claus, got by hook or by crook into
an Eighth Ward alley, is as good as the whole Supreme Court bench, with
the Court of Appeals thrown in, for backing the Board of Health against
But the ice-cream! They eat it off the seats, half of them kneeling
or squatting on the floor; they blow on it, and put it in their pockets
to carry home to baby. Two little shavers discovered to be feeding each
other, each watching the smack develop on the other's lips as the acme
of his own bliss, are cousins; that is why. Of cake there is a double
supply. It is a dozen years since Fighting Mary, the wildest child in
the Seventh Avenue school, taught them a lesson there which they have
never forgotten. She was perfectly untamable, fighting everybody in
school, the despair of her teacher, till on Thanksgiving, reluctantly
included in the general amnesty and mince-pie, she was caught cramming
the pie into her pocket, after eying it with a look of pure ecstasy,
but refusing to touch it. For mother was her explanation, delivered
with a defiant look before which the class quailed. It is recorded, but
not in the minutes, that the board of managers wept over Fighting Mary,
who, all unconscious of having caused such an astonishing break, was
at that moment engaged in maintaining her prestige and reputation by
fighting the gang in the next block. The minutes contain merely a
formal resolution to the effect that occasions of mince-pie shall carry
double rations thenceforth. And the rule has been keptnot only in
Seventh Avenue, but in every industrial schoolsince. Fighting Mary
won the biggest fight of her troubled life that day, without striking a
It was in the Seventh Avenue school last Christmas that I offered
the truant class a four-bladed penknife as a prize for whittling out
the truest Maltese cross. It was a class of black sheep, and it was the
blackest sheep of the flock that won the prize. That awful Savarese,
said the principal in despair. I thought of Fighting Mary, and bade her
take heart. I regret to say that within a week the hapless Savarese was
black-listed for banking up the school door with snow, so that not even
the janitor could get out and at him.
Within hail of the Sullivan Street school camps a scattered little
band, the Christmas customs of which I had been trying for years to
surprise. They are Indians, a handful of Mohawks and Iroquois, whom
some ill wind has blown down from their Canadian reservation, and left
in these West Side tenements to eke out such a living as they can,
weaving mats and baskets, and threading glass pearls on slippers and
pin-cushions, until, one after another, they have died off and gone to
happier hunting-grounds than Thompson Street. There were as many
families as one could count on the fingers of both hands when I first
came upon them, at the death of old Tamenund, the basket maker. Last
Christmas there were seven. I had about made up my mind that the only
real Americans in New York did not keep the holiday at all, when, one
Christmas eve, they showed me how. Just as dark was setting in, old
Mrs. Benoit came from her Hudson Street atticwhere she was known
among the neighbors, as old and poor as she, as Mrs. Ben Wah, and was
believed to be the relict of a warrior of the name of Benjamin Wahto
the office of the Charity Organization Society, with a bundle for a
friend who had helped her over a rough spotthe rent, I suppose. The
bundle was done up elaborately in blue cheese-cloth, and contained a
lot of little garments which she had made out of the remnants of
blankets and cloth of her own from a younger and better day. For
those, she said, in her French patois, who are poorer than myself;
and hobbled away. I found out, a few days later, when I took her
picture weaving mats in her attic room, that she had scarcely food in
the house that Christmas day and not the car fare to take her to
church! Walking was bad, and her old limbs were stiff. She sat by the
window through the winter evening, and watched the sun go down behind
the western hills, comforted by her pipe. Mrs. Ben Wah, to give her her
local name, is not really an Indian; but her husband was one, and she
lived all her life with the tribe till she came here. She is a
philosopher in her own quaint way. It is no disgrace to be poor, said
she to me, regarding her empty tobacco-pouch; but it is sometimes a
great inconvenience. Not even the recollection of the vote of censure
that was passed upon me once by the ladies of the Charitable Ten for
surreptitiously supplying an aged couple, the special object of their
charity, with army plug, could have deterred me from taking the hint.
Very likely, my old friend Miss Sherman, in her Broome Street
cellar,it is always the attic or the cellar,would object to Mrs.
Ben Wah's claim to being the only real American in my note-book. She is
from Down East, and says stun for stone. In her youth she was
lady's-maid to a general's wife, the recollection of which military
career equally condones the cellar and prevents her holding any sort of
communication with her common neighbors, who add to the offence of
being foreigners the unpardonable one of being mostly men. Eight cats
bear her steady company, and keep alive her starved affections. I found
them on last Christmas eve behind barricaded doors; for the cold that
had locked the water-pipes had brought the neighbors down to the
cellar, where Miss Sherman's cunning had kept them from freezing. Their
tin pans and buckets were even then banging against her door. They're
a miserable lot, said the old maid, fondling her cats defiantly; but
let 'em. It's Christmas. Ah! she added, as one of the eight stood up
in her lap and rubbed its cheek against hers, they're innocent. It
isn't poor little animals that does the harm. It's men and women that
does it to each other. I don't know whether it was just philosophy,
like Mrs. Ben Wah's, or a glimpse of her story. If she had one, she
kept it for her cats.
In a hundred places all over the city, when Christmas comes, as many
open-air fairs spring suddenly into life. A kind of Gentile Feast of
Tabernacles possesses the tenement districts especially.
Green-embowered booths stand in rows at the curb, and the voice of the
tin trumpet is heard in the land. The common source of all the show is
down by the North River, in the district known as the Farm. Down
there Santa Claus establishes headquarters early in December and until
past New Year. The broad quay looks then more like a clearing in a pine
forest than a busy section of the metropolis. The steamers discharge
their loads of fir trees at the piers until they stand stacked
mountain-high, with foot-hills of holly and ground-ivy trailing off
toward the land side. An army train of wagons is engaged in carting
them away from early morning till late at night; but the green forest
grows, in spite of it all, until in places it shuts the shipping out of
sight altogether. The air is redolent with the smell of balsam and
pine. After nightfall, when the lights are burning in the busy market,
and the homeward-bound crowds with baskets and heavy burdens of
Christmas greens jostle one another with good-natured banter,nobody
is ever cross down here in the holiday season,it is good to take a
stroll through the Farm, if one has a spot in his heart faithful yet to
the hills and the woods in spite of the latter-day city. But it is when
the moonlight is upon the water and upon the dark phantom forest, when
the heavy breathing of some passing steamer is the only sound that
breaks the stillness of the night, and the watchman smokes his only
pipe on the bulwark, that the Farm has a mood and an atmosphere all its
own, full of poetry which some day a painter's brush will catch and
Into the ugliest tenement street Christmas brings something of
picturesqueness, of cheer. Its message was ever to the poor and the
heavy-laden, and by them it is understood with an instinctive yearning
to do it honor. In the stiff dignity of the brownstone streets up-town
there may be scarce a hint of it. In the homes of the poor it blossoms
on stoop and fire-escape, looks out of the front window, and makes the
unsightly barber-pole to sprout overnight like an Aaron's-rod. Poor
indeed is the home that has not its sign of peace over the hearth, be
it but a single sprig of green. A little color creeps with it even into
rabbinical Hester Street, and shows in the shop-windows and in the
children's faces. The very feather dusters in the pedler's stock take
on brighter hues for the occasion, and the big knives in the cutler's
shop gleam with a lively anticipation of the impending goose with
fixin'sa concession, perhaps, to the commercial rather than the
religious holiday: business comes then, if ever. A crowd of ragamuffins
camp out at a window where Santa Claus and his wife stand in state,
embodiment of the domestic ideal that has not yet gone out of fashion
in these tenements, gazing hungrily at the announcement that A silver
present will be given to every purchaser by a real Santa Claus.M.
Levitsky. Across the way, in a hole in the wall, two cobblers are
pegging away under an oozy lamp that makes a yellow splurge on the inky
blackness about them, revealing to the passer-by their bearded faces,
but nothing of the environment save a single sprig of holly suspended
from the lamp. From what forgotten brake it came with a message of
cheer, a thought of wife and children across the sea waiting their
summons, God knows. The shop is their house and home. It was once the
hall of the tenement; but to save space, enough has been walled in to
make room for their bench and bed; the tenants go through the next
house. No matter if they are cramped; by and by they will have room. By
and by comes the spring, and with it the steamer. Does not the green
branch speak of spring and of hope? The policeman on the beat hears
their hammers beat a joyous tattoo past midnight, far into Christmas
morning. Who shall say its message has not reached even them in their
Where the noisy trains speed over the iron highway past the
second-story windows of Allen Street, a cellar door yawns darkly in the
shadow of one of the pillars that half block the narrow sidewalk. A
dull gleam behind the cobweb-shrouded window pane supplements the sign
over the door, in Yiddish and English: Old Brasses. Four crooked and
mouldy steps lead to utter darkness, with no friendly voice to guide
the hapless customer. Fumbling along the dank wall, he is left to find
the door of the shop as best he can. Not a likely place to encounter
the fastidious from the Avenue! Yet ladies in furs and silk find this
door and the grim old smith within it. Now and then an artist stumbles
upon them, and exults exceedingly in his find. Two holiday shoppers are
even now haggling with the coppersmith over the price of a pair of
curiously wrought brass candlesticks. The old man has turned from the
forge, at which he was working, unmindful of his callers roving among
the dusty shelves. Standing there, erect and sturdy, in his shiny
leather apron, hammer in hand, with the firelight upon his venerable
head, strong arms bared to the elbow, and the square paper cap pushed
back from a thoughtful, knotty brow, he stirs strange fancies. One half
expects to see him fashioning a gorget or a sword on his anvil. But his
is a more peaceful craft. Nothing more warlike is in sight than a row
of brass shields, destined for ornament, not for battle. Dark shadows
chase one another by the flickering light among copper kettles of ruddy
glow, old-fashioned samovars, and massive andirons of tarnished brass.
The bargaining goes on. Overhead the nineteenth century speeds by with
rattle and roar; in here linger the shadows of the centuries long dead.
The boy at the anvil listens open-mouthed, clutching the bellows-rope.
In Liberty Hall a Jewish wedding is in progress. Liberty! Strange
how the word echoes through these sweaters' tenements, where starvation
is at home half the time. It is as an all-consuming passion with these
people, whose spirit a thousand years of bondage have not availed to
daunt. It breaks out in strikes, when to strike is to hunger and die.
Not until I stood by a striking cloak-maker whose last cent was gone,
with not a crust in the house to feed seven hungry mouths, yet who had
voted vehemently in the meeting that day to keep up the strike to the
bitter end,bitter indeed, nor far distant,and heard him at sunset
recite the prayer of his fathers: Blessed art thou, O Lord our God,
King of the world, that thou hast redeemed us as thou didst redeem our
fathers, hast delivered us from bondage to liberty, and from servile
dependence to redemption!not until then did I know what of sacrifice
the word might mean, and how utterly we of another day had forgotten.
But for once shop and tenement are left behind. Whatever other days may
have in store, this is their day of play, when all may rejoice.
The bridegroom, a cloak-presser in a hired dress suit, sits alone
and ill at ease at one end of the hall, sipping whiskey with a fine air
of indifference, but glancing apprehensively toward the crowd of women
in the opposite corner that surround the bride, a pale little shop-girl
with a pleading, winsome face. From somewhere unexpectedly appears a
big man in an ill-fitting coat and skullcap, flanked on either side by
a fiddler, who scrapes away and away, accompanying the improvisator in
a plaintive minor key as he halts before the bride and intones his lay.
With many a shrug of stooping shoulders and queer excited gesture, he
drones, in the harsh, guttural Yiddish of Hester Street, his story of
life's joys and sorrows, its struggles and victories in the land of
promise. The women listen, nodding and swaying their bodies
sympathetically. He works himself into a frenzy, in which the fiddlers
vainly try to keep up with him. He turns and digs the laggard angrily
in the side without losing the metre. The climax comes. The bride
bursts into hysterical sobs, while the women wipe their eyes. A plate,
heretofore concealed under his coat, is whisked out. He has conquered;
the inevitable collection is taken up.
The tuneful procession moves upon the bridegroom. An Essex Street
girl in the crowd, watching them go, says disdainfully: None of this
humbug when I get married. It is the straining of young America at the
fetters of tradition. Ten minutes later, when, between double files of
women holding candles, the couple pass to the canopy where the rabbi
waits, she has already forgotten; and when the crunching of a glass
under the bridegroom's heel announces that they are one, and that until
the broken pieces be reunited he is hers and hers alone, she joins with
all the company in the exulting shout of Mozzel tov! (Good luck!).
Then the dupka, men and women joining in, forgetting all but the
moment, hands on hips, stepping in time, forward, backward, and across.
And then the feast.
They sit at the long tables by squads and tribes. Those who belong
together sit together. There is no attempt at pairing off for
conversation or mutual entertainment, at speech-making or toasting. The
business in hand is to eat, and it is attended to. The bridegroom, at
the head of the table, with his shiny silk hat on, sets the example;
and the guests emulate it with zeal, the men smoking big, strong cigars
between mouthfuls. Gosh! ain't it fine? is the grateful comment of
one curly-headed youngster, bravely attacking his third plate of
chicken-stew. Fine as silk, nods his neighbor in knickerbockers.
Christmas, for once, means something to them that they can understand.
The crowd of hurrying waiters make room for one bearing aloft a small
turkey adorned with much tinsel and many paper flowers. It is for the
bride, the one thing not to be touched until the next dayone day off
from the drudgery of housekeeping; she, too, can keep Christmas.
A group of bearded, dark-browed men sit apart, the rabbi among them.
They are the orthodox, who cannot break bread with the rest, for fear,
though the food be kosher, the plates have been defiled. They brought
their own to the feast, and sit at their own table, stern and
justified. Did they but know what depravity is harbored in the impish
mind of the girl yonder, who plans to hang her stocking overnight by
the window! There is no fireplace in the tenement. Queer things happen
over here, in the strife between the old and the new. The girls of the
College Settlement, last summer, felt compelled to explain that the
holiday in the country which they offered some of these children was to
be spent in an Episcopal clergyman's house, where they had prayers
every morning. Oh, was the mother's indulgent answer, they know it
isn't true, so it won't hurt them.
The bell of a neighboring church tower strikes the vesper hour. A
man in working-clothes uncovers his head reverently, and passes on.
Through the vista of green bowers formed of the grocer's stock of
Christmas trees a passing glimpse of flaring torches in the distant
square is caught. They touch with flame the gilt cross towering high
above the White Garden, as the German residents call Tompkins Square.
On the sidewalk the holy-eve fair is in its busiest hour. In the
pine-board booths stand rows of staring toy dogs alternately with
plaster saints. Red apples and candy are hawked from carts. Pedlers
offer colored candles with shrill outcry. A huckster feeding his horse
by the curb scatters, unseen, a share for the sparrows. The cross
flashes white against the dark sky.
In one of the side streets near the East River has stood for thirty
years a little mission church, called Hope Chapel by its founders, in
the brave spirit in which they built it. It has had plenty of use for
the spirit since. Of the kind of problems that beset its pastor I
caught a glimpse the other day, when, as I entered his room, a
rough-looking man went out.
One of my cares, said Mr. Devins, looking after him with
contracted brow. He has spent two Christmas days of twenty-three out
of jail. He is a burglar, or was. His daughter has brought him round.
She is a seamstress. For three months, now, she has been keeping him
and the home, working nights. If I could only get him a job! He won't
stay honest long without it; but who wants a burglar for a watchman?
And how can I recommend him?
A few doors from the chapel an alley sets into the block. We halted
at the mouth of it.
Come in, said Mr. Devins, and wish Blind Jennie a Merry
We went in, in single file; there was not room for two. As we
climbed the creaking stairs of the rear tenement, a chorus of
children's shrill voices burst into song somewhere above.
It is her class, said the pastor of Hope Chapel, as he stopped on
the landing. They are all kinds. We never could hope to reach them;
Jennie can. They fetch her the papers given out in the Sunday-school,
and read to her what is printed under the pictures; and she tells them
the story of it. There is nothing Jennie doesn't know about the Bible.
The door opened upon a low-ceiled room, where the evening shades lay
deep. The red glow from the kitchen stove discovered a jam of children,
young girls mostly, perched on the table, the chairs, in one another's
laps, or squatting on the floor; in the midst of them, a little old
woman with heavily veiled face, and wan, wrinkled hands folded in her
lap. The singing ceased as we stepped across the threshold.
Be welcome, piped a harsh voice with a singular note of
cheerfulness in it. Whose step is that with you, pastor? I don't know
it. He is welcome in Jennie's house, whoever he be. Girls, make him to
home. The girls moved up to make room.
Jennie has not seen since she was a child, said the clergyman,
gently; but she knows a friend without it. Some day she shall see the
great Friend in his glory, and then she shall be Blind Jennie no more.
The little woman raised the veil from a face shockingly disfigured,
and touched the eyeless sockets. Some day, she repeated, Jennie
shall see. Not long nownot long! Her pastor patted her hand. The
silence of the dark room was broken by Blind Jennie's voice, rising
cracked and quavering: Alas! and did my Saviour bleed? The shrill
chorus burst in:
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.
The light that falls from the windows of the Neighborhood Guild, in
Delancey Street, makes a white path across the asphalt pavement.
Within, there is mirth and laughter. The Tenth Ward Social Reform Club
is having its Christmas festival. Its members, poor mothers,
scrubwomen,the president is the janitress of a tenement near
by,have brought their little ones, a few their husbands, to share in
the fun. One little girl has to be dragged up to the grab-bag. She
cries at the sight of Santa Claus. The baby has drawn a woolly horse.
He kisses the toy with a look of ecstatic bliss, and toddles away. At
the far end of the hall a game of blindman's-buff is starting up. The
aged grandmother, who has watched it with growing excitement, bids one
of the settlement workers hold her grandchild, that she may join in;
and she does join in, with all the pent-up hunger of fifty joyless
years. The worker, looking on, smiles; one has been reached. Thus is
the battle against the slum waged and won with the child's play.
Tramp! tramp! comes the to-morrow upon the stage. Two hundred and
fifty pairs of little feet, keeping step, are marching to dinner in the
Newsboys' Lodging-house. Five hundred pairs more are restlessly
awaiting their turn upstairs. In prison, hospital, and almshouse
to-night the city is host, and gives of her plenty. Here an unknown
friend has spread a generous repast for the waifs who all the rest of
the days shift for themselves as best they can. Turkey, coffee, and
pie, with vegetubles to fill in. As the file of eagle-eyed youngsters
passes down the long tables, there are swift movements of grimy hands,
and shirt-waists bulge, ragged coats sag at the pockets. Hardly is the
file seated when the plaint rises: I ain't got no pie! It got swiped
on me. Seven despoiled ones hold up their hands.
The superintendent laughsit is Christmas eve. He taps one
tentatively on the bulging shirt. What have you here, my lad?
Me pie, responds he, with an innocent look; I wuz scart it would
A little fellow who has been eying one of the visitors attentively
takes his knife out of his mouth, and points it at him with conviction.
I know you, he pipes. You're a p'lice commissioner. I seen yer
picter in the papers. You're Teddy Roosevelt!
The clatter of knives and forks ceases suddenly. Seven pies creep
stealthily over the edge of the table, and are replaced on as many
plates. The visitors laugh. It was a case of mistaken identity.
Farthest down town, where the island narrows toward the Battery, and
warehouses crowd the few remaining tenements, the sombre-hued colony of
Syrians is astir with preparation for the holiday. How comes it that in
the only settlement of the real Christmas people in New York the corner
saloon appropriates to itself all the outward signs of it? Even the
floral cross that is nailed over the door of the Orthodox church is
long withered and dead; it has been there since Easter, and it is yet
twelve days to Christmas by the belated reckoning of the Greek Church.
But if the houses show no sign of the holiday, within there is nothing
lacking. The whole colony is gone a-visiting. There are enough of the
unorthodox to set the fashion, and the rest follow the custom of the
country. The men go from house to house, laugh, shake hands, and kiss
one another on both cheeks, with the salutation, Kol am va antom
Salimoon. Every year and you are safe, the Syrian guide renders it
into English; and a non-professional interpreter amends it: May you
grow happier year by year. Arrack made from grapes and flavored with
anise seed, and candy baked in little white balls like marbles, are
served with the indispensable cigarette; for long callers, the pipe.
In a top-floor room of one of the darkest of the dilapidated
tenements, the dusty window panes of which the last glow in the winter
sky is tinging faintly with red, a dance is in progress. The guests,
most of them fresh from the hillsides of Mount Lebanon, squat about the
room. A reed-pipe and a tambourine furnish the music. One has the
centre of the floor. With a beer jug filled to the brim on his head, he
skips and sways, bending, twisting, kneeling, gesturing, and keeping
time, while the men clap their hands. He lies down and turns over, but
not a drop is spilled. Another succeeds him, stepping proudly,
gracefully, furling and unfurling a handkerchief like a banner. As he
sits down, and the beer goes around, one in the corner, who looks like
a shepherd fresh from his pasture, strikes up a songa far-off,
lonesome, plaintive lay. 'Far as the hills,' says the guide; a song
of the old days and the old people, now seldom heard. All together
croon the refrain. The host delivers himself of an epic about his love
across the seas, with the most agonizing expression, and in a
shockingly bad voice. He is the worst singer I ever heard; but his
companions greet his effort with approving shouts of Yi! yi! They
look so fierce, and yet are so childishly happy, that at the thought of
their exile and of the dark tenement the question arises, Why all this
joy? The guide answers it with a look of surprise. They sing, he
says, because they are glad they are free. Did you not know?
The bells in old Trinity chime the midnight hour. From dark hallways
men and women pour forth and hasten to the Maronite church. In the loft
of the dingy old warehouse wax candles burn before an altar of brass.
The priest, in a white robe with a huge gold cross worked on the back,
chants the ritual. The people respond. The women kneel in the aisles,
shrouding their heads in their shawls; a surpliced acolyte swings his
censer; the heavy perfume of burning incense fills the hall.
The band at the anarchists' ball is tuning up for the last dance.
Young and old float to the happy strains, forgetting injustice,
oppression, hatred. Children slide upon the waxed floor, weaving
fearlessly in and out between the couplesbetween fierce, bearded men
and short-haired women with crimson-bordered kerchiefs. A
Punch-and-Judy show in the corner evokes shouts of laughter.
Outside the snow is falling. It sifts silently into each nook and
corner, softens all the hard and ugly lines, and throws the spotless
mantle of charity over the blemishes, the shortcomings. Christmas
morning will dawn pure and white.