A SHARPSVILLE CHRISTMAS
CHRISTMAS EVE IN SHARPSVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA
SHARPSVILLE SERVICE CLUB
I was six years old, my sister Sandy was four. Our older sisters, Mary Lou (14) and Joyce (11), were partners with our parents in this wonderful Christmas season of church, gifts and lots of secrets from their little sisters. Party time!! This year of 1948 was the first year of the annual home visits by Santa Claus and his helper to every home in our little town on the night before Christmas, Christmas Eve. My memory of that magical night is still super clear, so first I’ll describe it to you from my six-year-old eyes. Then I’ll give you the factual background I learned years later about how this wonderful gift to the children of our town of 5000 people came about.
My mother began decorating the house for Christmas, inside and outside, weeks before December 25. Christmas was HER time, continued joy carried over from her own growing up years in the same town. The surrounding towns had a contest to reward the homes with the most novel, dramatic and exciting outdoor Christmas displays featuring lighting and decorations. This was a big deal. Winners with pictures of their winning homes were featured in the area newspaper and competition was keen. My parents and grandfather built a plywood sleigh with reindeer, Santa sitting in the sleigh, all painted pretty realistically and propped up on the roof of our house. My mother was the first, I think, to cover our front door with a cloth with shiny gold glitter she had glued to it. There were red wreaths in every window with red bulbs in them, turned on every evening at dark. All of this was lit up with huge spotlights in the yard connected to big, fat electric cords running all over the yard and into electric sockets IN the house through slightly open windows; no outside sockets those days. Our house won honorable mentions several years running, always disappointing but at least the efforts were recognized and our family’s name was in the paper.
Inside the house, a real Christmas tree was set up by our dad but our mother decorated it all herself, no help, thank you. It was HER passion. She hated to cook but this was the season and many relatives and friends would descend on our home to spend their Christmas Eve with us. Thus we smelled delicious fudge, her famous pecan rolls, cookies, homemade eggnog, baked ham, all manner of treats prepared days ahead. Our dad was responsible to get the liquor and beer and lots of it for one of our Irish clan’s reasons for the season.
At about 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, our dad disappeared and we had no idea where to or why but the house was abuzz. As soon as it was dark, about 5:00, my aunt and uncle would appear and put Sandy and me in the back of the car and spirit us away to see all the houses in the Shenango Valley decorated for Christmas. They had no children of their own yet so we were the surrogates and they treated us to so much fun. I remember that for some reason we had to be back home at 8:00 p.m. but I didn’t know why at the time.
Back into the house!! Wow!! What had happened!! Piles of presents were under the Christmas tree, lots of adult relatives and family friends had arrived and the eating and drinking had already begun. It felt overwhelming but beyond exciting. Sandy and I were escorted into the living room and all the adults surrounded us, staring at us. We were clearly the entertainment.
Then there was a knock on the front door and palpable excitement stirred among the adults. Enter Santa Claus in full red and white attire, beard, big boots, lots of jingling bells on his belt and carrying a huge sack on his back. We were in awe, mouths open. He put Sandy and me on his lap, one at a time, and knew exactly what we wanted for Christmas! He told us he had already placed quite a few of our gifts under the Christmas tree while we were out viewing the Christmas lights and that he would be back later tonight, after we had gone to bed, with the big stuff. Then he gave us each a popcorn ball out of his sack, a fabulous and unknown treat to us in those days! He was happy we had been such good girls. We were also very painfully shy and had little to say to him, just gave him big grins and certainly our thanks as we were reminded to do by all the adults. Then he teased some of the “big people” and there was lots of laughing. He was accompanied by another man we didn’t know, billed as his helper, who was dressed in a long winter coat and boots and a cap against the cold night. The helper kept whispering to Santa and then helped him out the door.
Once they left, the party began. Our dad was STILL not home and we were told that he would return at 10:00 p.m., at which time we could open some presents. While we waited, our mother went to the piano and began playing Christmas carols. I can still see those big uncles, my grandfather, the aunts and all the other adults standing around her, beer in hands, singing with gusto and surprisingly good harmonizing. My mother was an excellent pianist/organist (she had played the organ at Mass up the street in the Catholic Church from the time she was eleven years old—she would be heading up there soon to play for Midnight Mass). Finally, our dad came in the back door, hailed by all of us like a conquering hero. Little did I know till years later that he was one of the Sharpsville Service Club volunteers and had been driving his Santa partner around town to their assigned home visits.
So how did those glorious Christmas Eves come about? In 1948, the Sharpsville Service Club, a men’s group, acted on the idea of one of their members, George Mahaney, Sr., to begin a project of visiting every home in Sharpsville on Christmas Eve with members dressed as Santa Claus, giving gifts or treats to each child. Eighteen of these men volunteered to be Santas and eighteen more volunteered to be their partners, dressed in street clothes, escorting their Santa via car to each home. This then called for Santa suits, wigs and beards to be made along with sweet treats to give the children from Santa’s sack. Myrtle “Mert” Caracci quarterbacked the effort to produce all of this.
The headquarters were in the Sharpsville Borough Building on Main Street and that facility became the production area, launch area and storage area for the annual Christmas Eve activity which would continue for decades. The volunteers met there, climbed into their Santa costumes, picked up their street maps, schedules, home visit assignments, and instructions for dealing with the children. Citizenry were alerted to the project and parents wishing a visit to their children were instructed to leave the porch light on. The helper would knock on the front door, chat with a parent to get the children’s names, gift wishes and special instructions, then return to the car to share the information with Santa. The helper would “coach” Santa in the house to remember all the data. Some parents even had a gift ready for Santa to give the child or children, to be complicit at show time. Parents sometimes gave Santa and helper gifts of thanks, or contributions to the Service Club in gratitude.
This wonderful event continues on an even grander scale to this day. It is now held on December 23 as finding enough volunteers willing to give up part of their own Christmas Eve became difficult.
Ask any child who grew up in Sharpsville if they remember anything special about Christmas Eve. Every one of them will tell you about those annual visits from Santa Claus. We believed all of it!! It was magical.
–Judy McCracken (SHS 1960), Mentor, OH, December 2014