Over the Hill

Was it really so different in 1891?

‘Christmas has gotten too commercial,” people say. “Let’s get back to the old-fashioned, traditional Christmases.”

But what’s “old-fashioned”? Would the Christmas of 1891 qualify? It was the third Christmas after Paso Robles incorporated as a city. Let’s sample some ads from the Paso Robles Leader of Dec. 23, 1891.

One says “Call and see our elegant line of reed and fancy rockers suitable for Christmas presents, Conwell & Findley.”

A reed rocker sounds old-fashioned all right, but not very Christmasy.

Another ad says, “A doll as a Christmas present at Heimbach’s grocery, by purchasing a can of baking powder.”

Sure, baking powder is old-fashioned. Nowadays, cake ingredients come ready-mixed in the box. But what kind of a chintzy doll would they give you with a can of baking powder?

Another ad says, “Auction sale of pictures tonight at Putnam and Hord’s. A chance for a Christmas present cheap.”

That’s tacky. I wonder how the sale went.

Here’s a longer ad: “A masquerade ball will be given in the old hotel dining room, back of the new hotel, on Christmas night. A new floor has been put in and the hall will be fixed up to suit everybody. The dance promises to be the biggest event of the season. Tickets, gentlemen, $1; ladies free.”

That’s sure sounds old-timey. And if the gentlemen and ladies came as shepherds, angels and wise men, it might be traditional. By the way, a footnote on that ad said, “Spectators 50 cents.”

One ad in that 1891 paper stood out because of its originality and style. Its headline said, “X-mas Dinner at Senator Ellis’ Reception. Park St., Paso Robles.” (I assume it was a restaurant.)

The ad’s subheadline says “’Possum and Sweet Potatoes” and “Dinner From 12 M to 12 P.M.” The senator’s menu describes the ’possum as “Missouri ’Possum.” Maybe ’possum is a Missouri Christmas tradition. Or maybe Mr. Ellis was a Missouri senator.

His menu did include some traditional Christmas fare — turkey with cranberry sauce, ham and “goose stuffed with sage and onion.” But it also offered “fried halibut in goose lard.” That doesn’t say “Merry Christmas” to me.

If Mr. Ellis lived today, he’d have a nationwide chain of his “Receptions” with drive-up windows. Also we’d see repetitive TV ads with him reciting the tagline from his 1891 ad: “Now suffer your little children to come to this dinner and forbid them not,” and we’d probably condemn his commercialism.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phil2008@abcglobal.net or 238-2372.

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