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This week in history: Joy and hardship on Christmas Eve, 1934

On Dec. 24, 1934, Chicagoans faced tough times and dark days ahead, but there was still some holiday spirit to be found.

Children receive gifts at a Christmas party at Sarah Hackett Home in December 1933.
A group of children receive gifts at a Christmas party at Sarah Hackett Home in December 1933.
From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Christmas Eve 1934 marked the halfway point of the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1939. But just like Chicagoans of today living through the coronavirus pandemic, residents would never have known that they were halfway through this dark time. They only knew the continuing joblessness, hunger, loss and hopelessness that had gripped Chicago for five years.

The Great Depression hit the city’s manufacturing sector particularly hard, leaving thousands out of work. The Encyclopedia of Chicago estimates 40-50% of Black workers were unemployed by 1932, and the following year, the city owed its public school teachers about eight and half months’ backpay. Still struggling from the 1928 tax strike and financial mismanagement, the city government could do very little to help its residents.

The front page of the Chicago Daily News on Christmas Eve 1934 showed the bleak reality that many Chicagoans faced — but it also managed to find a little holiday spirit around town.

Robert J. Casey, best known for his crime reporting at the paper, interviewed Santa Claus’ “local secretary,” Assistant Postmaster John T. McGrath. For 14 years, McGrath had read the letters children wrote to Santa and then sent them on to individuals and charities “who in some measure might have taken up the work that Santa himself might have done if he had received his mail.”

The post office received far fewer letters than usual that year, McGrath said, and most of them came from poor children. One 10-year-old girl left instructions to her new home. “You go down five steps from the street. Please bring mother some bread and jam,” she asked. A 9-year-old boy wanted a job for his father and a scooter for himself.

A 12-year-old child with three younger siblings on the North Side explained in his letter how his father slipped while shoveling snow and could no longer shovel. Although they were “on relief” and had food to eat, there wouldn’t be any presents under the tree. “Maybe Santa Claus could you get my father work he could make money and buy us toys. And mother wouldn’t cry anymore,” the boy wrote.

The letters would have been hard to read. But it wasn’t too late, Casey reminded readers, for those charitable people receiving these letters to take action.

Despite the seriousness of the times, there was some Christmas cheer to be found in the city. In the Loop, the streets teemed with people — shoppers, businessmen, chauffeurs and traffic cops directing them all, an unnamed Daily News reporter observed.

“Then suddenly the stage was set for the carnival of Christmas carols arranged by the State Street Council,” the reporter wrote. “A motor truck draped in red and bedecked with Christmas holly blocked off Madison street on the east side of State. Policemen with yellow wooden ‘horses’ made barricades to prevent traffic in State street. At the same time as if from nowhere loomed up buses, trucks and trolley flat cars crowded with costumed groups of singers.

“Among these cars and vehicles, thousands of pedestrians poured, securing standing room where they could see the principals and contribute to the spirit of the natal day of Christendom. In a few moments sidewalks and streets were jammed and skyscraper windows were crowded with eager faces.”

And then led by grand opera star Marjorie Maxwell, the flash mob sang “Holy Night” together, the reporter said. Maxwell sang the first verse solo, and the thousands “who had lost self-consciousness in the comradeship of this Yuletide get-together” joined in the second verse. Afterward, the crowd dispersed.

If Chicagoans were still searching for a bit of hope and brightness that night, all they had to do was look up.

“Nova Herculis, the new star which has been increasing in brightness with the approach of Christmas, can now be easily seen in a clear sky in the northwestern sky at 6 o’clock in the evening,” a short blurb at the bottom of the Daily News’ front page read. “It was observed last night from the planetarium, just to the right of Vega, the brightest star in that portion of the sky.”