If you’re like me, something feels a little off-kilter this Christmas. There just doesn’t seem to be much joy to the world.
Part of it is the election, I know. It’s easy to be discouraged by the cast of characters that Mr. Trump has nominated to keep watch over the flocks at the departments of Treasury, Energy, Interior and State and the Environmental Protection Agency. Not many Magi in that story.
Part of it also is personal in that, for the first time, our son, Christopher, is not with us during Advent. He’s in Sweden on a Rotary Youth Exchange program. All in all, it’s not a bad time to be in Sweden, enjoying the lights, ice sculptures and genuine husmanskost — and the company of people who still believe in things like climate change and finding room in the inn for refugees.
In times like this, however, I remind myself of a Christmas story that took place long ago, before we had the luxury of fighting over things like tweets and fake news and vaccinations and worrying about finding the right 12 gifts for each family member.
This story took place in a small town in California during the Great Depression. It involved a 6-year-old girl named Dorothy who had the misfortune of having her birthday on Christmas.
The year was 1932. Dorothy lived with her sister Vivian, 12, and her brother Adolph, 15. Their father was a bus driver named Hugo, a laborer who had emigrated from Sweden three decades earlier in search of a better life. The mom, Victoria, also from Sweden, took care of the family in their two-story framed home in downtown Palo Alto.
One cold gray in early December, Adolph became very ill. He had diphtheria. This was a time when as many as 13,000 to 17,000 children died every year from the disease in the United States alone. According to the doctor, it was very serious.
If that wasn’t scary enough, that day, a sign was nailed on the family’s front door that read “Quarantined.” No one could come in or out.
Unfortunately, this included Hugo, who was at his job when all of this happened, and the oldest brother, Victor, who was away at school. As a result, Hugo had to stay with a brother who lived in the next town over.
Meanwhile, being stuck in the house was a trying experience. Dorothy couldn’t go in her brother’s room and saw little of her mom. She tried to help but was often directed to just stay out of the way. Sometimes that wasn’t so easy.
“These were the days before we had a radio,’’ says Dorothy. “We had to make our own fun. We didn’t have many toys. I had paper dolls and made paper dresses for them. I had a doll and buggy, both hand-me-downs, of course. We didn’t know we were poor.’’
Nonetheless, signs of the Depression were everywhere.
“Many homeless men would come to our house in those days,” she says. “My mother couldn’t turn anyone away. She felt it was her responsibility. They would knock on the back door, and she would feed them on the back porch,’’ she says. “We didn’t have much, but she always found something to cook for them.’’