Ours is a family that delights in wordplay, that toasts by composing new lyrics for old standards. My grandfather, brought up to understand that conversation at table must either be edifying or minimal, was astonished at the banter of the boisterous Ogdens. Here he records in his diary of 1934 impressions of his in-laws that have stood the test of time:
"All the Ogdens excel at a type of conversation which is rarely heard in our family. It is light, witty, laden with gossip and more especially with the 'semi-sex' life of the members of the family and all friends. They never pick a topic for discussion and attempt to gain anything from the conversation. Thus it is most unproductive. But it surpasses in wit, quick retort and humor."
An example of this tendency is found in a long-standing Christmas tradition that made full use of my Great-grandmother's light heart and lively wit. Christmas Dinner at 454 Westminster Ave. in Elizabeth New Jersey featured numerous family members at the groaning board, and beside each place a holiday favor concealing a small gift within. The notes attached to these gifts were in verse of her own devising, and gave clues both to the contents of the package and to the character of the recipients. As with her Christmas lists discussed in the previous post, Gr-grandmother Madge (Olmsted) Ogden recorded these poems for posterity in another of her ruled notebooks, still preserved in our family archive.
A few of her Christmas jingles have already been highlighted here in a post about her suffragist sister-in-law, Esther "Het" Ogden. In the decade leading up to woman's enfranchisement in America, several of the Christmas poems composed by Madge take playful note of where others in the family stood on this issue. In 1916 Uncle John Owen Stearn's Jr., a confirmed bachelor and thoroughly Anti-suffrage, found this note attached to a box of pipe cleaners:
" Old Santa Claus is giving you a useful gift this year/ A little bunch of cleaners to make your pipe burn clear./ But is it not superfluous to give this gift to you? / For all your hopes are realized, your "pipe dreams" have come true...In fact there's nothing left for me to wish you in this poem/ Fort Wilson's in the White House, and Woman's in 'the Home!'"
Not to be outdone, the following year, Aunt Het the suffragist received a present with this encouraging tag:
"Old Santa is a kindly soul and likes to give each year ' The present that you want the most at Christmas dinner here. / Your gift to-day has cost a lot and was most hard to get / But Santy had it in his pack to give someday to Het./ 'Tis not a golden laurel wreath within this small surprise / But something you will wisely use and also greatly prize."
It contained a small ballot box.
As for Madge's views on votes for women, her own present in 1914 came with the following revealing lines:
"Dear Mother says she cannot be a suffragette like us / Because with all her children small she hasn't time to fuss; / But really she is doing lots for Suffrage, please take note, / For she's training up five voters while we work to get the vote!"
Politics have long been a favorite family preoccupation, and aside from Suffrage there were divided party ties at the holiday table. In 1924 Het's elder sister, Aunt Bess Ogden, found a toy donkey at her place with these lines on the tag:
"...Surely no one is more constant, nor more loyal to a friend / And when Bessie has convictions she will hold them to the end. / To her party she is loyal: "Only Democrats can save us / From the G.O.P. dominion; all should vote from Bryan and Davis." / That you know was e'er election: some did not vote as did Bess / But the outcome now is History and we need no longer guess! / Loyal Bessie has a present from old Santa Claus to-day / Just a Democratic memory - take it with our love we bray!"
My Great-grandfather Archibald Gracie Ogden liked "baseball, highball, golf ball too", so his sentiments toward the Eighteenth Amendment, which went into effect in 1920, need not be surmised. His present that year was a cocktail ice pick with the following lines of verse:
"'Conservation is vexation, Subtraction is far worse. / Substitution is 'the limit", Prohibition is a curse! / Gone are the glad days of cocktails, Whiskey, beer and all things nice / But in counting up your blessings, don't forget they've left you ice! / You'll not find a silver corkscrew tied within this package gay - / But please don't pick faults in Santa for the gift he brings to-day."
I can find no evidence either in the written family record or in our oral tradition that Prohibition made teetotalers out of any of us, then or since.
Often the poems were more substantial than the gifts they adorned, and clearly the family loved this tradition: the younger members no less than their elders. My grandmother's gift in 1916, when she was not quite six, was a pen-knife and a cautionary limerick:
"Now Athalia, our dear youngest daughter / Can see what old Santa has brought her / I fear what you get / We may some day regret / Pray use it, my Dear, as you oughter."
As to my grandfather's initial skepticism, whether such merry doggerel was edifying at the time is doubtful, though it sheds great light today on the personalities of my forebears, not to mention certain traits still much in evidence in our clan today.