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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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German Santa Postcard, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Rosemary McKittrick.
Jake Gusky never forgot the kids at Christmas. A century ago, Gusky, an orphan himself, started delivering presents to every child in Pittsburgh area orphanages. A horse-drawn sleigh would arrive Christmas morning and Santa would hand deliver gifts.

A few old-timers remember Gusky's clothing store on Third Ave., and Market Street in the Old Allegheny section of Pittsburgh. When Gusky was stricken with pneumonia near the holidays in 1886, crowds stood in front of the newspaper office to read updates of his condition. He died soon after, and hundreds attended the funeral at his home on North Ave.

Surprisingly, on the Christmas morning after Gusky’s death, Santa stepped out of his store as usual and into a carriage drawn by six horses. Another Santa followed in a sleigh, and behind that came 30 more wagons and carriages with gifts headed for the orphanages. Gusky had spent his final hours preparing for the holiday.

A hundred years ago, celebrating Christmas in Pittsburgh was not that much different than today's holiday. Shop owners decorated their windows with tinsel and greens. The flashing lights may have been missing, but the flavor of Christmas was clearly present.

The smell of anise cakes and gingerbread men moistened the air outside the German bakeries in Old Allegheny. Inside, cases full of cookies decorated with St. Nick, angels, reindeer and Christmas trees waited for early morning shoppers.

F.R. Jackson, the wholesale liquor store on Federal Street offered a quart bottle of wine in a Persian cut-glass decanter for $1. Carnegie library in Old Allegheny served as the Christmas tree market.

Pines imported from as far away as the forests of Wisconsin and as close as the mountains near Somerset, Pa., sold for $1-$10. New buggy whips were available at Stockman's department store.

The Boggs & Buhl's store on Federal Street advertised satin quilts for $2, and imported Jacquard slumber robes for $1. Housewives haggled in German with the shop owners over the prices of things.

Sidewalk merchants on one corner sold holiday decorations, another, candles and holly wreaths. Even the medicine men in the neighborhood traded in their cure-alls to sell musical tops, toy monkeys, and jack-in-the-boxes.

"Al Harris was selling dancing bears and educational tops instead of his wizard oil," said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer, Bill Rimmel.

Local taverns brought out the Tom and Jerry bowls and beer mugs were washed carefully in preparation for the holiday cheer.

Many of our present-day customs originated with the Germans. The German Christmas was a family festival. As busy as the head of the family was, he usually hunted and provided a turkey for the Christmas table.

Chestnuts, hickory nuts, and walnuts gathered by the children in the fall had been saved for the special day, and maple-sugar cakes made the previous spring topped-off the holiday meal.

"On Christmas Eve the Christmas story was solemnly told to the children, and then they were directed to hang up their stockings for "Belznickel man"-Santa Claus-to fill," said Hawthorn Buck in his book, “The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania.”

"Into the stockings went the nuts and sugar, sometimes doughnuts, and apples. Toys were seldom given as presents, although occasionally a new and exceptionally charming "rag baby" might go into the stocking of a young girl," Buck added.

Like today, Christmas a century ago meant sharing good food, good cheer and good company.

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