Christmas 1914

By Melissa S. Jacobson
Professor of History, Diablo Valley College

(NOTE: This article appeared in the "Live From The Archives" column of the Martinez Gazette, 12/11/14)

One hundred years ago people in Contra Costa County were living in a state of calm, not realizing the storm to come. U.S women who had been mobilizing for generations, were within grasp of the national franchise, or vote. And that bug-a-boo, Prohibition — or was it Influenza? — was also imminent. World War I— The Great War — was already devastating old Europe. One hundred years ago last June, the infamous Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated which led to the unfolding of complicated alliances: by August Germany had declared war on Russia and France. The French raced out to the front in their taxi cabs to halt a complete German invasion at the river Marne, the infamous "trench warfare" began. By December, Germany’s total war against England was seemingly put off for the Yuletide holiday and soldiers hemmed in by barbed wire and stranded in the trenches, far out on the muddy Western Front, had an "unofficial" Christmas day of truce. Who would have known that this stalemate would last another four years resulting in unimaginable casualties and new technologies such as mustard gas, tanks and airplanes — all meant to kill. Yet, on December 25th, 1914 would anyone in Contra Costa County have known that we were living on the cusp of such a dramatic, new era?

While browsing through the local papers published in late December that year, I was surprised at how little was mentioned — or not at all — of the ongoing war in Europe. The newspapers also shocked me with their intense commercialization of the Yuletide holiday. For example, just days before the 25th, The Antioch Ledger reminds consumers, "Only four more days to solve your gift problems… Don’t put it off any longer!" Historians have already studied Christmas and have documented that the "shop early craze" for the holiday began way before 1914; the 19th century Victorians have that claim to fame. What I learned from our 1914 papers is that we don’t need professional historians to tell us that procrastinators are timeless! Most ads — as it got closer to the 25th — emphasized the obvious: "Don’t Wait Until the Eleventh Hour!" Uniquely, the Antioch Ledger tells local readers to "Patronize Your Home Merchants." The Ledger said that not only were goods in Antioch cheaper than "the big city dealers" but one could also avoid — in an era before widespread cars and plastic bags—the "annoyance of carrying the bundles home." Not only did The Ledger have the most Christmas advertisements that told consumers to buy locally, but the Ledger also told them to buy "Useful Christmas Presents." Palace Drug Company actually gave an extensive list of useful "Gentleman’s Gifts and Ladies Gifts: No other present will reflect on their memory as often." Obviously, the pressure and stress of Christmas was as timeless then, as it is now.

The Concord Transcript of December 24th was probably the most worldly and thoughtful of all of the local papers. Interestingly, it did not fail to mention how brilliant the Concord stores were and how "their prosperity means the town’s prosperity." It was the Transcript however, that dedicated a significant amount of space to the war in Europe, such as the battle for Warsaw and the bombardment of London weeks before total war was technically proclaimed against England. Raids on London were killing women, children and "fifteen schoolboys were killed by a single German shell." British ships were being attacked and "Berlin is elated and this may be the prelude to greater events on the sea." The Kaiser of Germany was also making overtures in the Balkans and the Transcript printed the London Times response that "the Germans, ever restive, are preparing … a concentration of their forces to strike when conditions are propitious." TheTranscript also published an article by a staff writer titled "Unemployment and Crime Go Hand in Hand" quoting Oakland’s Chief of Police that Oakland "should take some steps to care for its own citizens who are out of work." Chief Petersen showed special concern, thus echoing the more secular sentiments of Christmas, which tells us to be grateful and generous to others. He said that many of those out of work were not "the usual eastern migratory indigent," but those who had families.

Much in step with what we would all like to see in newspapers today on Christmas Eve, the Martinez Gazette on the 24th of December highlighted how the Charity Committee distributed "Food For The Hungry and Little Gifts For the Children" at the county hospital and in the county detention homes. Yet oddly placed, on the 23rd, amidst "Hurry, Hurry, Hurry! Last Call for Christmas!" was a small sidebar column that joked about holiday suicide. This surprised me. It goes something like this: A "Wild -Eyed Customer" asks for carbolic acid and the clerk says it’s not a pharmacy, it’s a hardware store… "but we have a fine line of ropes, revolvers, and razors!"

Was it shear serendipity then, that the next holiday newspaper headline I saw was the Richmond Independent’s bold, "EXTRA! EXTRA!" December 25th edition with the thick, bleeding black headline: "Bob Moran Is Suicide." This sensational headline finally cemented my feeling that people of 1914 were perhaps not so much different from ourselves. I quickly remembered the Gazette’s oddly placed suicide joke and I began wondering if suicide, like consumerism, has always been a part of our holiday season too.

Bob Moran, "a man of exemplary habits," was announced missing by the Richmond Independent on December 24th. His fraternal friends of the Richmond Elks lodge searched doggedly for him believing that the root of his problem was financial. His boss at the Street Railway Company said he would have "mortgaged his home" to aid him. Therefore, it was quite a shock that his mangled body was spotted by a lighthouse keeper floating near Angel Island on Christmas Eve. He left a note to his fiancé saying that he "tried to make good, but failed. I lost. Nothing to do but end it all." In his pocket was a railway key and his Elk’s club knife.

However, it’s a myth that suicides peak during the holiday season, regardless of all of the intense pressure to buy "useful" gifts and to "please" loved ones. In fact, the suicide rate, according to the Center for Disease Control, is the lowest in December. Yet, The Annenberg Public Policy Center analyzed media during a recent holiday season and found that fifty percent of articles said suicides occur more frequently over the holidays. The myth, regardless of the era, seems to persist, why? Bob Moran’s 1914 story is a powerful narrative about lost love during a season where expressing love —most often through gifts —is tantamount. Christmas highlights and rewards our efforts to be thankful, appreciative and loving. When these efforts are thwarted it puzzles us and attracts our imagination more than any other time of the year. In this way we are very much like the people of 1914, living in the moment and never knowing what lies ahead.

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