I'm travelling into a new way of working, a new country, a new language, and a new hobby which I'm passionate about. Come with me for some of the journey...

Thursday 17 December 2015

A Christmas Story Book

Hello all!

I'm here with a Christmas story book today - a fictional tale woven around one of the Found Relatives photos - and it's come alive within the covers of an old book, repurposed to tell a new story.

I know you won't have time right now, what with Christmas breathing down our necks, but I hope you'll be able to pop back some time over the festive season with a nice glass of mulled wine to enjoy the story.

It's a window onto the lives of two men from very different backgrounds, Luigi and Josef, joined in friendship - enduring hardship, battling to give their families a better life in a new country, and learning to embrace new customs and traditions.

Luigi hailed from a large Italian Catholic clan, and Josef came from a Viennese Jewish family.  Usually they might have kept to their own kind on board ship, but circumstance and coincidence brought them together.

Each of them was fairly newly married, and was making the journey taking care of a pregnant wife.

The women, Grazia and Anna, shared the trials of morning sickness added to sea-sickness, and the two men found ways to communicate despite the language differences.

The two young families arrived in New York in late November, 1925, with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few treasured belongings, of very little value except to the families themselves.

Between them they had enough broken English to cope with the necessary immigration details at Ellis Island, and to begin to find their way around the vast city.

By the time they had found themselves somewhere to stay, sharing a room in a tenement building on the Lower East Side - close enough to both the Italian and Jewish enclaves for each of them to feel at home in some way - it was almost Christmas.

Walking the streets of New York in search of work, the two men gazed at the preparations under way with round eyes of amazement.  Some things were familiar but others were new and beautiful.

Even back in the old country, many wealthy Jewish families had begun to decorate their homes with trees and exchange gifts, celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday and adding its traditions to the Hanukkah celebrations.

Here in New York it seemed to be a badge of assimilation to embrace the festivities.

Luigi and Josef longed to be able to deck their small room with lights and decorations to relieve the gloom, but that first year the most they could manage were a few fir branches gathered up from the streets, where they had fallen from other trees being dragged to wealthier homes.

From then on it became a silent pact between the two men that of any money they managed to earn, a cent or two would be put aside towards being able to celebrate a proper Christmas in their new country.

A few good years followed, with Josef finding regular work in the garment factories; and for Luigi, an experienced mason, there was usually a way to put money in the kitty.

And although it was strange to both of them that the 25th of December should be the main day of festivity, they felt that embracing the change would be a symbol of their commitment to this country they were trying to make their home.

Despite their Christmas kitty, most money still had to be conserved for essentials, so the women would make small decorations from scraps and paper to brighten the place, and Luigi and Josef would gather any leftover greenery from outside the grocers' stores on their way home from work.

With their special savings, they would buy candles for the menorah brought over by Anna, and small packets of lametta, fine strands of silvery lead foil which glimmered amongst the collected pine branches in the candlelight.

But it was the brightly advertised baubles and Christmas ornaments that they really longed to be able to afford... what must it be like to buy a whole box of the gleaming glass decorations in one go?!

Slowly, they were starting to be confident that one year in the near future that dream might become a reality.

But disaster struck with the great Crash of 1929... those dreams of a prosperous, festively-decked home suddenly seemed hollow, and more distant than ever.

Through the struggles of those years, even when they were queuing in the breadlines, the months spent sharing their small room with two extra families (seven adults now, and five children between them... at least there was warmth in huddling together), the dream of those bright lights and colourful decorations was a kind of beacon to keep fighting towards.

Together, Luigi and Josef kept their own particular faith that one day the doors being shut in their faces would open again, and that they would be invited back inside.  They weren't asking for charity, just for the chance to work.

Then, suddenly, there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.

News filtered through the streets and alleys that there was help coming for the working man from the new mayor, Fiorello La Guardia (an Italian, as Luigi proclaimed triumphantly, beating his chest with pride).

There would be investment and capital works to provide employment for the desperate men trying to feed and house their families.

With his considerable expertise, and thanks to the labour organisations encouraged by his countrymen, Luigi was one of the first to find work on projects financed by funds supported by Roosevelt's New Deal, and he managed to find openings for his friend too.  Josef was willing to turn his hand to anything, and as a fast-learning, reliable, diligent worker he made the most of any opportunity.

The winter cold of 1934 seemed to bite just a little less fiercely, warmed by the flame of hope, and a hot meal in the belly, though the decorations had been reduced again to a few scavenged branches.

As well as fighting to secure federal funds to help his city, Mayor La Guardia was appointing Italians and Jews to important positions in unprecedented numbers, and both Luigi and Josef felt the warmth of being fully accepted into this newly vibrant society.  No longer the outsiders looking in... 

... but an instrumental part of the recovering economy, starting to thrive under the new regime of municipal and federal support.

Now, each year, it was more than a few cents that they could add to the Christmas kitty, and each year they added a bauble or two to their Christmas box.  So neither of them grudged the hard work.

They also now had adjoining apartments, the luxury of two rooms for each family.

"Now we are truly prosperous Americans," whispered Josef to his wife on their first night in their own apartment - still rented, still shabby, but theirs.

But somehow the habit of living as one large family was hard to give up.

So one apartment became the "sleeping apartment" - Luigi and Grazia, with Alessandro, Giovanna, and little Antonio (who was starting to insist on being called Tony) had one room, and Josef, Anna and their two children - Samuel and Leah - shared the other.

In the second apartment, they used the smaller room for cooking and eating - Grazia and Anna taking it in turns to prepare food, week by week, and learning one another's favourite recipes and which foods to avoid for either religious reasons or personal likes and dislikes.

The larger room contained a hotchpotch of chairs, some comfortable, some rather less so, handed down by wealthier members of each community, and it was where the families would gather in the evening to talk over the day's events and the successes achieved, or to reminisce about their respective homelands so that the children might learn something of their roots, and to sing and play games.

And it was to this room, one memorable December in 1938, that Luigi and Josef brought their long-desired prize... For the first time ever there was enough money spare for a few luxuries - and to buy, actually buy, a Christmas tree of their very own.

Oh, how they enjoyed selecting the finest, bushiest specimen, perfectly shaped... not somebody else's leftover trimmings but their very own tree.

They carried it proudly through the streets towards home, and as they neared the building, they could see the faces of all five children pressed up against the window, watching with eager eyes to see the grand arrival.

Nothing could have exceeded their joy and pride as the two families gathered to hang the carefully wrapped and much cherished ornaments which had been waiting so long for a proper home.

Once decorated with the baubles and "icicles" and garlands, and with the candles lit, the tree became truly magical.  The children's eyes grew wide and the adults' eyes brimmed with tears.

And although they still lit the Hanukkah candles on the relevant days according to Jewish tradition, and celebrated with a feast of fish on Christmas Eve according to Italian tradition, both men insisted that all gifts should remain under the tree to be unwrapped on the 25th - the new tradition belonging to this country which was now their home.                                                                                                                 

The glow of the lighted candles echoed the glow in their hearts, and they sang festive songs in a mish-mash of languages, celebrating community, family, endurance, love, and friendship.

And although in the Christmases and Hanukkahs to come they would have to travel further, between homes which grew progressively larger (and ever more lavishly decorated), they always spent some of the Yuletide holiday together, and they never forgot that first tree, the one that meant they were now Americans too.

I'm dreaming of a White Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleighbells in the snow

From White Christmas,
written in the late 1930s by Irving Berlin
(who was Jewish)

I'd just like to say that these adventures are purely fictional (though influenced by some of my own family background).  My apologies for any glaring errors - though I've done my best to be accurate where I've included historical information, and to be true to the spirit of the times and the people.  If you feel inclined to explore further what life might have been like for thousands like Luigi and Josef, you might enjoy these extraordinary photos of Christmas in New York in the 1920s and in the 1930s.

I'd like to enter this at the Craft Stamper Take It and Make It, Sharing the Season.
And I'm not much of a glitter user generally, but there's Just A Pinch of it here to finish off the story with some festive glimmer, and a pinch of imagination too, so I'd like to play along at the Simon Says Stamp Monday Challenge too.
With the story of Luigi and Josef and their old country traditions mutating into a new celebration in a new home, I'd like to share this in the "Celebrations Around the World" Dare over at Emerald Creek Dares.
Tis the Season at the Inspiration Emporium too, so I'd like to share this there.


brenda said...

Great design and colours Alsion and everything compliments that fascinating historical era perfectly.

B x

chrissie said...

Wonderful craft project which I almost forgot about as I read the very moving story which highlighted the plight of many in that era and even later. I could substitute names and years for it be some of my family history as well.

Thank you Alison for sharing both.

Love Chrissie xx

maj. said...

Woooooowwwww, what a great work......wonderful !!!

Inky and Quirky Designs said...

You really do create the most wonderful eye candy out there Alison and this is another one that just wows!
Donna xxx

Mary W said...

What an extraordinary gift to us and for you to have made for your family. More than just a beautiful piece - it offers history, meaning, love and family values. A treasure and why I love following your blog. Thank you so much for this beautiful story. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!

Pamellia said...

Gorgeous project Alison and your post was so wonderful. I just love all the elements with so much meaning and the vintage feel to this fits perfectly. Fantastic! hugs :)

Dorthe said...

Alison I could have read for hours , about your two families, starting a new life in USA , you wrote a wonderful novel, with the history of your own family members from back then, and the amazing story illustrated so beautifully and magic, with your artwork.
The "house" is just wonderful, I love the photo you used, and all the beauty and old fashioned adds , GORGEOUS ,dear.
Hugs Dorthe

SewPaperPaint said...

How utterly delightful! You are creative in so many ways, Alison! The (re)construction of your book is so great, and gives me lots of ideas! Love the window idea and the green glittered Noel die is the perfect accent for the cover! This is wonderful! Hugs, Autumn

experiments in paper said...

Totally enchanting, Alison - I agree with Dorthe that your story totally engaged me! In fact, I am going to curl up tonight with that suggested wine and immerse myself in all the fabulous details! Fabulous make! xxx Lynn

Cestina said...

Oh I do like this.....

Lys said...

How I love reading your stories, Alison! This one would be a wonderful Christmas tale if it was not so real. Your house book is gorgeous and full of delightful details: such an idea for inspiration again!

Anita Houston The Artful Maven said...

I was really lost in your story. You have a gift for story telling! The book cover is gorgeous, and I love that the whole story was spun over that photo card...GRAND!!!

Meggymay said...

Alison, you have totally captured me with this moving story, I am so glad they made it through the hard times and could see forward to their future.
Of course I must say I loved the photos of your gorgeous project as well.
Yvonne xx

Cathy - CMP Designs said...

I love the Christmas book but the story you weaved through the picture is amazing!! A gift for creating in all forms! thank you so much for coming back and sharing with us at the Emerald Creek Dares challenge!
Cathy - DT Member at Emerald Creek

rachel said...

absolutely wonderful alison - you created such a wonderful story and piece of art all centred around this picture - i love it all - you are such a story weaver - wonderful! Big hugs rachel x

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness. That was truly an amazing walk through the creation of your project. The story was so warm and really captured the layers people feel through the holidays. Merry Christmas and thank you for taking us on this journey.

Kelly said...

I loved the story and could see this all happening as you wrote so perfectly. I know someone who is not here anymore that migrated over and how hard financially it was at that time. Very heartwarming but a reminder of where our roots are. Gorgeous book to go with. Wishing you a Merry Christmas. Kelly

Maggie said...

Wow! A beautiful Christmas keepsake I love it Alison. Will have to go and look at it several times lol so much detail thank you for sharing.
Merry Christmas

Craftyfield said...

The story is just as fabulous as the book, Alison! The details are just perfect for a Vintage feel and the photo, ephemera and embellishments just beautiful.
Thanks you so much for your lovely comment on my Abstract piece.

Helen said...

What a beautiful story - and a beautiful book too. You draw some amazing pictures with your words. Have a fabulous Christmas (though I am sure we'll see you again before then!)

Shirley said...

This looks a fabulous read Alison especially when I have some spare relaxing time over Christmas. Can't wait to come back and start the story.

Merry Christmas to you and your family sweets plus a huge thank you for all the lovely comments you have left on my blog for 2015.

I hope 2016 sees you healthy, happy, wise and full of those creative thoughts.

Warm crafty hugs from Shirl x x x

Shirley said...


Oh, forgot to say, just in case you get wealthy in 2016 I hope you don't forget all your crafting buddies ... lol

Warm crafty hugs from Shirl x x x

Karon said...

This is truly amazing! WOW ! Gorgeous details and transformation. Thanks for joining us for our Tis the Season Emerald Creek Dares Challenge

Karon DT

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Have a Wonderful Holiday Season!
Beautiful story and work

liberal sprinkles said...

Alison, you are a great storyteller. I felt the story come alive and your book is gorgeous.
Happy holidays

Unknown said...

Wow! What a fantastic story ~ and so perfectly suited to the Found Relatives card you used for your project too! I love all the wonderful detail you put into your book. Gorgeous! Thank you for joining us for our Celebrations Around The World at Emerald Creek Dares
{Julia} Emerald Creek DT

Redanne said...

Alison, if this was a novel I would still be sitting here reading it - what a wonderful story! It is not unlike my Grandparents journey when they emigrated to Canada in the 1920s (that makes me feel so old!). You told the story beautifully and your book cover is really lovely and reflects the story so well. Anne xx

Margik said...

That's a very moving story, you are very talented in all areas, Alison!
Love the fabulous book cover and all wonderful details.
Mar xx

Anna-Karin said...

This is amazing Alison! I love the wonderful story you created and of course the gorgeous book. I was just talking to my dad today about our relatives that went to the US at about this time, or a little earlier, and how that must have been. Gorgeous details as always.

Jackie PN said...

Outstanding tale Alison! I felt the building of the prize ending and the love and hope and faith as I read along on the lives of these two men! So well done!!! xo

Pawsitively Creative said...

These two gentlemen are astoundingly interesting. What a creative way to showcase your wonderful and fantabulous book. So many lovely details with the story and the design. You are such a talent in so many ways. Wowzers! Hugz. ~Niki

Gio said...

Oh Alison, you gave us a really lovely gift. I read the story, and It was so touching and beautiful. I was so into it I didn't have a proper look at your book, but I know that is simply gorgeous. Your altered pieces always amaze me I found them enchanting.
And beside I am very happy you entered the TIMI CraftSTamper challenge, so best of luck!

Barbara said...

Speechless!I'm realky speechless! I'm in awe!Pinned!!!Barbarayaya

JoZart Designs said...

I loved reading the story and your artwork illustrates it all so poignantly. How lovely it is when people can embrace the celebrations of other cultures.It was so touching.
Jo x

Diana Taylor said...

What a beautiful blog post - the art is stunning, and I was swept away by your story telling. I'll be back to see more of your beautiful work!

Julie Lee said...

Alison, this is such a special post! I love your beautiful book and the captivating story you told. Everything about this sharing of cultures has moved me deeply. The other day I responded to a beautiful old photo posted by a facebook friend and I discovered we both shared Jewish ancestry and we talked about celebrating Hannukah and Christmas. She was compelled to remove the post, as some sadly bigoted people had made insulting remarks. How tragic that we can't celebrate what is joyful and life affirming in different cultures. Thank you for doing so here. It has renewed my faith in people. Happy and Creative Christmas Wishes to you and your family. xxx

Anke said...

WOW WOW WOW fantastic work, Alison. It's amazing.


Kay Wallace said...

This is art at its finest, Alison! It really does tell a story and beautifully so. Love all the texture you have created with your varied elements! Merry Christmas, my friend! Mwah!

craftytrog said...

Beautiful book art & a wonderful story Alison!
p.s. thank you for the lovely e-card! xxx

Willy said...

Ohhh wowwww what a beautiful project, love it!!

Kirsten said...

Wonderful. The project & the story.

Katelyn said...

Wow, beautiful project. All of the little details are perfect! Thanks for joining us at Emerald Creek Dares.
-Katelyn DT member at Emerald Creek

Paper Profusion said...

Have just scanned pics and it all looks BRILLIANT Alison. Have bookmarked to read properly in a few days. Nicola x

ßeulah ßee said...

This is a really wonderful project! Have a very Merry Christmas, Alison.

Cocofolies said...

Oh Alison... how beautiful your story is, even fictive, you will never cease to amaze me in all ways!!!!!!!!!
I have LOVED reading all the story tonight.. Also admiring your wonderful book by the way.. everything totally captivating!!!! And looking at the photos of early 1920's and 1930's families during Christmas season was just a treat too. THANK YOU so much! You're an amazing artist, writer and crafter at the same time perfectly.
Hugs, Coco xxx

Julia Aston said...

What a wonderful wonderful window story book - and a lovely view inside both the book and into the story of these lovely gents - so many beautiful places to look on this creative project! I saw this earlier while I was at work - but for some reason, I can see your posts but I cannot leave a comment!?! Julia xx

Mary Elizabeth said...

Oh my goodness. What a rich tapestry of words and pictures you have woven here. Love your book and the very special tale of two men and their families and dreams. New York is a place that can bring dreams to life ...like amazing plays and better health. Right? One of my favorite posts!!!!!! Hugs to you my friend. Will continue catching up tomorrow (or is it today already?). Mary Elizabeth

Ellie Knol said...

LOVE your creation for our challenge at Craft Stamper.
Thanks for joining in the fun.
xxx Ellie xxx

pearshapedcrafting said...

Oh My!! I read your story with only glimpses of the project so had to go back to see the most beautiful details! Alison…you brought a tear to my eye…in a good way… with this most wonderful of posts that I am only just catching up with! I so wish I had seen this before Christmas - the hospital appointment was on my mind so much and now I have another next week! Big Hugs, Chrisx

Astrid Maclean said...

So glad I did not miss this one altogether Alison, such a wonderful project woven around the history of the time and so well told around that wonderful photo. I too recognize much from my own family's history, although the Jewish branch only left central Europe in 1939, - they still endured many of the same hardships. Love how you used the vintage ephemera, truly stunning all round!

Linda said...

WOW! What an amazing piece of artwork, so much detail. Great story too. Thank you for playing along with the Craft Stamper Challenge. Linda xx

My Paper Epiphany said...

Amazing project! So much detail - so wonderful!