The holiday season in Greenbelt has always been a festive time, from when the first residents arrived in the experimental town in 1937 in the midst of the Depression, through WWII, and right up to the present day with the challenges presented by a global pandemic. Greenbelt pioneers, as the first occupants were known, brought some traditions with them and developed new ones as they settled in. They were all white families, as Black families sadly were excluded, but a variety of religions were represented. Greenbelt’s planners were aiming for a population that would be 63% Protestant, 30% Catholic, and 7% Jewish (numbers based roughly on the makeup of the larger Washington metropolitan area). Much of what we know about holiday traditions here we have learned from the Cooperator (now the Greenbelt News Review), oral histories, photographs, and artifacts which are part of the collection of the Greenbelt Museum.
1n 1937, holiday celebrations were tempered by the Great Depression which still gripped the nation. Greenbelt was built as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was planned and constructed primarily for three reasons: to put people to work, to provide homes to families of low to moderate income, and to be an experiment in modern town planning. Residents were carefully selected and it was expected that they would help to run the town. Many immediately joined committees, clubs, and other groups. There were so many meetings, in fact, that in December of 1938, Dr. Linden S. Dodson suggested at a meeting of the Greenbelt Citizen’s Association, that the last week of December should be “At Home Week in Greenbelt.” There would be no meetings planned, so that residents would be able to spend time at home with their families!
Other traditions involved the belt of green space which surrounded the community. Designed to be a space for recreation as well as a buffer against encroaching development, the woods which comprised parts of the green belt, provided many families with holiday greenery. Cassie Mae Stone Snow moved to 7-A Southway with her family in 1943. “Around Christmastime Mama would go to the woods near our court and gather ground cedar to make into beautiful wreaths for us and some of our neighbors.” (Oral history, July 1987)
Another much beloved tradition, especially for Greenbelt children, took place after the Christmas holiday. As Greenbelt pioneer Marty Madden recalls, “…every year on a Friday night in January, not too long after Christmas, they used to give a free ticket to the movie to every kid who would bring the family tree down to Braden Field. We’d hand in our trees and they’d give us our tickets, and that evening there’d be a big bonfire.” (Oral history, August 1987)
There are other long standing holiday traditions in Greenbelt, some of which have had to be modified in order to keep everyone safe and healthy. Typically, Santa arrives on a fire truck to greet everyone who’s gathered for the annual City tree lighting and although that particular event couldn’t take place this year, the annual Festival of Lights Art and Craft show (now in its 48th year!) is happening now - virtually! (Shop the Greenbelt Museum’s selection of items at our online gift shop). Since the Museum first opened in 1987, on the occasion of the city’s 50th anniversary, we have typically decorated the house to approximate as best we can what the holidays looked like in the late ‘30s through the early ‘50s. We hang vintage ornaments on a tree, display old boxes of Christmas lights and tinsel, and have big band versions of Christmas carols in the background. This year, since the house is too small to be open for tours and maintain social distancing, we set up a sparkly aluminum Christmas tree. Stop by to have a look through the first floor window on the garden side of 10B. We always put a menorah on display, as well, and this year we have a new addition - a vintage chrome electric menorah made by the Cromwell Silver Manufacturing Company. It is in the upstairs window on the garden side of 10B.
Another project that we’re working on in lieu of the Museum house being open this month is a slideshow of how Greenbelters have celebrated the winter holidays over the years. We’re looking for all eras and all holidays: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Solstice, etc. If you’d like to submit a photo or two, please send them (as high resolution as possible) to firstname.lastname@example.org. The slideshow will be viewable on the Museum’s website and social media channels. By submitting a photo or photos, you are agreeing to this use. Thank you! We’ve been busy collecting images this month for this project and are so pleased to be able to share with you a short video of Santa visiting Lakewood in 1963. The film was shot by W. Gordon Gemeny, December 23, 1963 on Greentree Place and is shared courtesy of Steve Gemeny.