Christmas at Ellis Island
By EUGENE WOOD
Author of “Back Home”
Illustrations by George Wright
It seems to me we all feel a little puckery and as if we had bitten a green persimmon when we think of Ellis Island. There came over last year one million one hundred thousand, and one million the year before—always increasing.
We begin to worry for I don't mean that our country, only those of us worry who work with our hands for a living and who dread the large advent of those who will work harder and longer and for less money than we, but I mean nice people, who haven’t had a callous on their hands since they were on the college nine, and those who smilingly assure us that they “don’t know a thing about housework.”
Such are gnawed with anxiety for our beloved Republic. Is it safe to let in such a horde of underbred who do not know cut glass from pressed ware? They're very low class, these immigrants, no doubt of that. One look at the size of their families proves it.
Along in Andrew Jackson's day it wasn't out of the way for a man to have twenty-eight children, fourteen by the first wife and fourteen by the second.
How they ever managed it before extension dining-tables were invented I'll never be able to tell you—but that's all gone out of style, except among “the lower classes.”
If it keeps on, the day will come when the children in the public schools whose names have “insky” at the end of them will snicker at a name like Smith or Brown, because it sounds so funny and old-fashioned.
I don't know that any of us whose forebears “fit into the Revolutionary War” especially hankers for that day to come. Maybe that's one reason why the mention of Ellis Island causes such a pucker taste in the mouth, so entirely unlike the nice taste that Christmas leaves.
At “that season wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated” we do not like to think of anybody having a dull time of it. In the jails and prisons they have turkey and plum pudding, although bread and water is what will make good men and women of them, as is well known, and although the extra feed probably sets back their ultimate reformation months and months.
So why not have some such doings at Ellis Island? Why not give the immigrants a real, rollicking, roaring good time that would enable them to forget their troubles?
For although they’ve set their feet on the soil of the Land of Promise, and have probably sold the family cow and the ancestral plot of land to get the price of the passage over, they have to wait at Ellis Island for someone to come and get them—and waiting is so discouraging—or else they may be deported, and all they have to show for the cow and the ancestral plot of land is the memory of the ride between decks to America and back.
And all that is one reason why they should share in the Christmas fun—they're low in their minds. Another reason is that Ellis Island is a poor folks' institution.
There's nothing stuck up about the people who land there, no foolish pride about their being able to pay for their own Christmas dinners, and they'd thank you to attend to your own business, if you've got any.
They're the kind you can bawl at, and order around, and shove this way and that, and make fun of before their faces, and they take it all without bridling up and saying: “Sir-r-r! You are impertinent!” No.
On the slightest provocation they will kiss your hand in weltering gratitude. (Do you know, I can't stand that, somehow. I have to snatch my hand away, even at the risk of hurting their feelings.)
When I add that in the case of the immigrants there cannot be the underlying suspicion that we are giving back in benefaction what we have already euchred out of the beneficiaries, you will see that Christmas festivities at Ellis Island are not only desirable but ideal.
There must be some consideration in the matter, though. It must be remembered that the employees at Ellis Island also are human beings and would like to eat their Christmas dinner at home.
So the feast was fixed for the day before Christmas. It is a mere detail that a good half of all that large throng are Catholics, with whom the day before Christmas is a fast day, not a feast day.
Another good half are Russian Jews who do not make much of a to-do over the birthday of the Prince of Peace, not having had it demonstrated to them that there is “peace on earth, good will to men,” so far as they are concerned.
Also, it is an integral part of their religion that the way Christian people kill and cook meat is too mussy and slatternly for decent folk to eat; they had sooner starve to death.
To be sure, this is all foolishness on the part of the Catholics and the Jews—anybody's else religion is very likely to be all foolishness—but I can readily understand that when a man hasn't much beside his prayer-book and a large family, he is likely to attach undue importance to the faith of his fathers, particularly if he happens to be fleeing persecution for it.
SHOULD much have preferred to see them all jovial and on the broad grin, all greasy about the mouth, and all drawing a long breath from time to time so as to make a little more room for the white meat and the dark meat, the savory stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the potatoes, the celery and the mince pie.
I can conscientiously endorse the mince pie. I had a big piece myself. The little folks did certainly put the dinner away as well as anybody I ever saw; the young fellows, snappy-eyed, ready for any adventure, away from home and reckless, left little to be desired in the way of their appetite, and the young women, red cheeked and with gay, outlandish kerchiefs tied under their chins, giggled and stuffed, giggled and stuffed, the way girls will.
But there was a noticeable number of those who, disregarding the plenty before them, made out their dinner on an apple and a piece of dry bread. In vain the attendants bawled out, as they have to do every day: “Alles kosher essen!” (“All clean eating”). Uh-hum!
They had not been born yesterday. It was all right, as the sign on the wall said, free and without price, but all the more reason to be suspicious. These Krishts are tricky. And couldn't you see that the same dishes were used for both milk food and meat food? “Kosher?” Tell that to the marines.
I honored the martyrs, but I admired the young folks. The world's before them. Get along? Why, sure they could get along. Two hands, a willing heart—isn't America the same as any other place?
There are worse things than turkey on a fish day; tripha food is better than no food. It won't kill you, and so long as you aren't killed, why—anyhow, who's to tell on you? There is something attached to the under-eyelid of youth that makes the eye twinkle, if not wink.
But I felt proud of the martyrs, too, as they munched their apple and dry bread. Dinner is much, but duty is more. There is a lot in that.
Still, as I looked at the big dining-room, filled three times, I didn't have a really gay time. I knew it wasn't the Waldorf-Astoria, and I made allowances for the bare oak tables, the benches instead of chairs, the tin spoons and the crockery that you could kill a cow with.
And the people weren't the Waldorf Astoria crowd, either, and I did the best I could in the way of making allowances for “Get back there! Get back!” and “Step lively now! Don't be all day about it!" because I am talked to that way by my betters in the subway stations and on the bridge platform.
And if those who were crying hard, with the tears running down their faces, because some of their family were in the hospital and they didn't know when they would get out, or because they were going to be sent back—if, I say, those who were crying hard didn't get a sympathetic arm around them and tender words of comfort, it must be understood that when you see people crying all day long and all week long, year in, year out, and you really can't do anything for them, you get kind of used to it and take it philosophically.
It's foolish and unreasonable of me, I know, but I'm so constituted that I can't have a really gay time when I see people crying hard, with the tears running down their faces.
And there were thoughts came to me as I looked through the dining-hall that disquieted me.
I am one of those who think that every baby born into the world gets practically an even start with every other baby; that they all have equal chances to be good looking (different styles of beauty) and smart (diſferent departments of intelligence); that what they will turn out to be depends more on food and education than on heredity.
If anybody disputes this, I will hire a hall and debate the question, but just now I am going on the supposition that I am right in this belief.
If they hadn't been dressed so funny, the young ones I saw there clutching a handful of their ma's frock or their pa’s trousers leg would have done credit to any body. And there was one little fellow that was a beauty.
I'll show you his picture. There! Isn't that a sweet little boy? I wish he was mine. Melting dark brown eyes, dark ringlets from under his Russian cap, and the most beautiful features!
I know there's a great difference in ideals of beauty, but I don't see how anybody could help thinking him just about right. Oh, but his mother was proud of him!
And when I made him a little Christmas present he knew his manners and kissed the gentleman's land. His name is “Shosshi.” I don't know what his last name is; I don't know why he and his mother were detained, and I don't know what their fate was, whether they did get through into the country where they don't kill Jews just because they are Jews (we are an enlightened people and don't hold spite against other races, burning them alive or keeping them from going to public school) or whether they had to go back to holy (and cruel). Russia.
BUT look at him. Suppose he is nourished well till he gets to be a fine, big young man; suppose he gets enough play and sleep; suppose he has enough to do to develop his brain through the ends of his fingers, and suppose he has the right kind of schooling; suppose in the formative years of his life he is somewhat sheltered from the struggle so that he may enter the years of fruition with a sound mind and soul and body, is there any human height to which he may not win?
I'm kind of glad I do not know his name. I dread to think that one of these days I may find Shosshi slaving in some sweat-shop for the bare life of him, long, long, unbelievably long hours for unbelievably small wages, panting for breath because, in the dull den he calls his home, consumption clings to the walls for two years at a time. I can yet feel his kiss on my hand, and it seems to me he is somehow kin of mine.
Oh, God be good to little Shosshi! But they were all nice-looking children. Their fathers and their mothers must have been likenesses of such children when they were little.
They were but caricatures of them now, features and frames warped and distorted from what they should have been, souls and minds sordid and dull, crushed nearly out of human shape by what had come upon them since they were little children.
Close saving, skimpy living, hard work from daylight to dark, no pleasures save what the beasts might understand, had done their work. They tell me there is real culture over in Europe, such as we in this new and half-baked land can hardly dream of.
They say the nobility and landed gentry are very nice people, very nice people, far superior to “the steerage crowd, don't you know?”
They say the grounds around the houses of these really nice people are simply beautiful—simply beautiful Lawns so well-kept, and all! And really good statuary; no cast-iron dogs or cement Venuses.
I've no doubt that all this culture and refinement and good taste constitute a very pretty whistle. And it may really be only a fair price to pay for that whistle that the peasants' frames and features should be carved into grotesque caricatures of what they might have been; that having to work so hard and live on so little in order to support not only life in themselves but luxury in their betters, their minds and souls should be but one step higher than the oxen's.
The whistle may be worth the price—and it may not. We shall probably find out on the Judgment Day.
Now, you know you cannot have those thoughts and a gay time simultaneously. But I cheered myself with the reflection that the best part was yet to come.
There was to be a Christmas tree, with presents, and, preceding that, “exercises.” That struck right home, for, once upon a time, when I was about the age of Shosshi I stood under a big Christmas tree, certainly not shorter than sixty feet tall, and lisped out my part of the program: "'Twa’ the nigh' before Chrithmath, ay un all thoo thee houthe-'' You know.
You were there. It was in Center Street M. E., and each of us got an orange and a tiny bag of hard, clear candy all in images of fishes and acorns and such—red and yellow candy, strongly flavored.
But Ellis Island has a big, big place in which to hold “exercises.” It has a nice, cheerful floor of slate kept quite clean. There is nothing on the walls to catch the dust.
The windows are neatly barred with strong, substantial strips of steel. A seven or eight-foot passage runs all the way round the big room, and a six-foot fence of closely-woven wire net tastefully painted with aluminum paint encloses what I should call a sort of hennery, with long narrow runs for the different kinds of poultry.
Each run has two luxurious board seats about ten inches wide running length wise. The atmosphere is redolent of home. Perhaps I should say “of a Home"—a Home for the incurably insane, for instance.
To get into this place you have to hold your pass in your hand ready to show it to him that asketh. Every ten steps somebody in buttons accosts you with the cheery hail: “Hay, you! Where you going?”
You never feel lonesome or neglected at Ellis Island. The only thing that troubles you is the thought of how the country has to be safeguarded against anybody getting into or out of Ellis Island unbeknownst. If that unwinking, ceaseless vigilance were to be relaxed for one little, little moment what would become of us all?
The big, big room was practically empty when I got to it. Some dozen or twenty employees were resting from their labors. The chicken-runs had only three small broods in them—one in the Black Spanish pen, a mother and her little girl, the child in a coat of some kind of white skin with the fur inside; the mother in short skirts that came just below her knees, and wearing curious high felt boots, gay with brass filigree work upon them.
She was where she could look up and see the motto, “MERRY CHRISTMAS” all in electric lamps ready to be lighted, but the unreasonable creature was crying!
An official came for her, and they led her here, they led her there; they took her to see one man, they took her to see an other man; she went into this room, she went into that, and when I left she was back in the Black Spanish pen, still crying, though the “MERRY CHRISTMAS” sign was in full glow.
In the Plymouth Rock pen were a man and his wife. He had a fine, keen face; it might have been an artist's or a poet's. He had so keen and intellectual a face that I wondered if he wouldn't be snared in either of two ways; he might have a job promised him as soon as he landed, in which case he'd have to go right back; or he might be an anarchist. Anyhow, they put him in another wire pen. He looked worried.
As I stood peering through the wires at him, I heard a voice inquire in the Dublin accent, which I find the most be witching in the English language, “Is Newark far from here, sir?”
“Why, no. Not far. An hour's ride, perhaps. Why?”
“My mother lives there. I telegraphed her yesterday when I got here but she hasn't come for me yet. D'ye think she'll come for me to-day?”.
Thirteen-year-old boy—come all the way from Dublin alone! Not one English-speaking person in all the crowd of his fellow-voyagers! Sitting in a corner of the wire pen waiting for his mother, who might or who might not come for him—hungry, too! No dinner, no breakfast.
“Oh, you're foolish,” I told him. “It was a fine dinner.”
He swallowed but stuck up for his conduct. “I wouldn't eat with the likes of them. I couldn't. They're dirty.”
(And the Russian Jews wouldn't eat with the likes of him for the same reason!)
“They won't send me back, will they, sir? D'ye think my mother will come for me, sir? I wouldn't—” his chin began to tremble, and he choked a little—“I wouldn't like to spend Christmas in this place!”
No, nor I.
“Sure she'll come for you. She probably got the telegram too late yesterday. Maybe she'll be on the next boat. It isn't far,” I told him.
“I haven't even had a look out of doors since I came,” he said.
Well, you know how it is. You want to give people a good time if you can. So, not thinking of the welfare of the Republic, I asked the man in charge of the wire pen if I couldn't take the boy to the window and let him look out.
I'd be responsible for him. And he, not thinking of the welfare of the Republic either, but noting that there were no other immigrants upon the floor, so that he couldn't possibly get mixed up, consented.
We were within ten feet of the window, within ten feet of a look at the sky and the earth and the gray waters of New York Bay, when the front legs of a chair which was leaned up against the big chicken-run came bang! on the floor, a man in buttons cried loudly, “It's against the rules!” and snatched the boy away. Saved! Saved!
The country was saved! For if that lonesome little fellow had got a glimpse of Liberty Enlightening the World, who knows what notions it might not have put into his head?
In the employees' dining-room on this festal day they had music while they ate. Some Italian fellows in green velvet jackets played on mandolins and fiddles and a big, double-necked guitar.
They played tunes that wouldn't let you keep your foot still. And they sung songs, “Funiculi, Funicula” and “Santa Lucia” and “La Donna e Mobile” and all kinds of Guinea music, solos and quartettes, and all with such a fetching lurch of the head—constancio they call it in the directions.
I saw one of the musicians afterward in the big room where the “exercises” were to be and I thought to myself: “That's a good idea.
They'll sing the songs from home, the old airs familiar to the lonely immigrants and it will kind of cheer them up. It will seem more like Christmas to them.”
As the time for the doings drew near, the galleries began to fill up.
On the platform, set where a large open space ends and the chicken-run begins, the distinguished visitors were arriving. Once in a while a door would open off into the unknown regions from the big, big room.
You could see the immigrants arranged in much the same way that people are arranged on the bridge platform at six o'clock on a rainy night. Finally they streamed in, two lines of them—men and women—shepherded into the various chicken-runs, seated on the board seats, and told to sit right still.
The festivities were about to begin. All were in a twitter of suspense; we, up in the gal1eries, because we were looking forward to the rollicking good time that was to be given to them below; they, from their looks, because they were wondering at which end of the line the massacre would start.
They didn't have the Italian string band for the music. They had an upright piano, which in that big, big room was as largely sonorous as a mouth organ in the next county.
A young fellow with pompadour hair played a voluntary at the beginning; made it up all out of his own head as he went along! It was something grand–exciting, too, with a sort of sporting interest, for just when you began to think, “Ah! there's a tune!” with a clever twist of the wrist he'd get away and do his arpeggios and scales in sixths again. He won. There couldn't anybody catch him.
The other musical numbers on the program were: “All Hail the Power of Jesus's Name,” “My Country, 'tis of Thee,” and the long meter Doxology to the tune of Old Hundred sung by the cong—by the audience of Russian Jews and Italian Catholics, assisted by the distinguished visitors on the platform, who hollered loud and off the key.
There was an opening prayer; there was reading of the Scriptures (both in English) but the main features of the “exercises” were addresses, eight of them —four in English, one in Norwegian, one in Swedish (there were no Swedes or Norwegians among these immigrants) one in German (quite a few held up their hands to show they understood German) and one in Italian.
Though, as I said, the big half of the cong-of the audience—was of Russian Jews, there wasn't one syllable in Yiddish. The Apostolic Benediction made up for that, though, in a kind of a way!.
Then they were all formed in line and chased up into the gallery, past the Christmas tree, stepping lively as per instructions, and each received a box of chocolate creams, a tract, and the men each a beautiful red cotton handkerchief.
It was indeed a Merry Christmas for all: for little Shosshi; for the martyrs to their faith who dined on an apple and a piece of bread when plenty was set before them; for the lonely Irish lad hustled away from the window lest he might get one look at land and sea, and the sky over where his mother lived; for the woman in the felt boots with the brass filigree work upon them (whom I saw still weeping in the Black Spanish pen when all was over), for all the down cast and desolate in heart who feared that all they might have to show for the cow and the ancestral plot of land would be the memory of the ride across the water between decks.
But, most important of all, it was a Merry Christmas for the distinguished visitors. How they did enjoy each of the eight addresses! And how they did shake hands with each speaker at the conclusion of his masterly effort! And how they did sing!
But how would it be, d'ye think, at this Christmas entertainment on Ellis Island, if, instead of being penned up and made to sit still while distinguished visitors talk at them in an unknown tongue, the immigrants, people accustomed to stirring around, should have a chance to shake a foot while the gay fiddles squeaked?–do-see-do, and balance all, and swing the corners, allemand, grand right and left, all that sort of thing, don't you know?
Lots of room for such a frolic! And don't you think they'd like it better than eight addresses, four of them in English?
And how would it be if they had the string band in and started up some of the old tunes they used to sing in their own country on the yon side of the gray and heaving sea?
And, at the last, how would it be if on a big, white sheet there were thrown up pictures of the new country, so near in point of space, so far in point of steely bars and chicken-wire —moving pictures of that new life to be a part of which they have endured so much and come so far?
The distinguished visitors might not enjoy it so much as hearing themselves talk, but even so…
Wood, Eugene, “Christmas at Ellis Island,” in The Delineator, New York: The Butterick Publishing Company, Vol. LXXII, No. 6, December 1908, 974-977, 1051-1053.