COLUMN: A Malat Musing: Ring Christmas Bells

Updated: 12/17/2012 12:47 PM By: Phil Malat

It was 1938. He was just five-years-old.

America has seen difficult financial times but nothing like the great depression spurred by the stock market collapse in 1929. 

The boy’s father was a reliable hard worker. He was a talented man whose knowledge and skills in building and repair extended to plumbing, welding, carpentry and electricity. 

The family was able to survive the early onslaught of the depression as carnival employees. The father was an electrician while mom filled various roles, including acting as the human outline target for the knife throwing act. The boy’s earliest recollection of life is traveling all over the upper Midwest with the carnival.

The economy had experienced several years of minimal improvement previous to 1938. These minimal improvements took a serious hit in ‘38. A recession that year caused unemployment to once again rise to 19%. The boy’s father and thus his family were victims of this ugliness. They were never sure that year if dinner would be served on any given night.

As Christmas approached they remained optimistic. Surely employment of some kind would bless their home with some semblance of the holiday. That optimism remained entrenched right up until Christmas Eve. 

The boy’s father had been out all day, as he had been every day, scouring the city for an income.

Upon his return home he summoned his wife and his five-year old little boy to the kitchen table.

With tears in his eyes he informed his family there would be no Christmas celebration this year.

Shortly after the harsh reality set in, and well before any form of acquiescence could begin the healing process of the broken hearts, a knock came at the family’s door.

It was the Salvation Army. In they marched with a Christmas tree, and a turkey with all the trimmings. Before they left they also provided $10.00 in cash. The average yearly income for an American family in the 1930’s was $1,368.00 or $27.36 per week.

A portion of that very generous one-half week’s wages was spent on shoes for the father. He had long ago placed cardboard inside his existing footwear to keep the elements off his feet. 

It is now impossible for me to walk by a Salvation Army bell ringer and kettle without thinking of this boy and his family. It is equally impossible for me to even think of a time when such a set of circumstances could have existed in our country.

What remains to be told about this blessing is that to this day, that boy, now a senior citizen, still refers to that Christmas as the greatest Christmas ever, even though a Red Ryder BB Gun never appeared on the scene - that he still cannot tell the story without tears welling up - and that to this day the family still has no idea how the Salvation Army learned of their need.

Albert Schweitzer wrote; “The purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion and the will to help others.” – As was clearly demonstrated to that little boy on Christmas Eve, 1938. 

Phil Malat is a columnist for