My First Christmas in America
The first Christmas I spent in America I remember best of all. So I decided to revive my memory of those first days and have the description published.
In October 1913 I took leave of my family and of my birthplace, and set out on the long journey towards the rich country lying somewhere far in the direction of the setting sun. The farther away from my native village I was the stronger was my homesickness. I tried to cheer up by the thought that I would spend in America a few years only until I had earned enough money, and then I would come back home, back into my beloved country.
Now after so many years I still cannot stop wondering how rash we Slovenes were in leaving the native land for America. Me and so many others cherished in our bosoms rosy-coloured hopes of welfare in the “promised land”. In the end everything turned out exactly according to the well-known saying: “Man proposes, God disposes.” I mean to say that in the end my things were “disposed” in an entirely different way from what I had planned.
I came to my uncle’s at Barberton, they received me with open hands as one of the family, but I could get no work anywhere. The uncle comforted me by saying that I should be patient and that sooner or later things would take a more favourable turn, but to my dismay they did not. The uncle charged nothing for my food and lodging, but I felt unhappy idling away the time when I wanted to work and earn my living.
After a few weeks at Barberton I decided to leave for Imperial in Pennsylvania. Frank Šoštaršič, a neighbour of mine in my native village in Slovenia, who had gone to America to his brother Jože at Imperial a year before me, had been working in a colliery. We had exchanged a few letters and he persuaded me to move there. I had been told before that coal-miners earn a lot, so I came to Imperial in great hopes that soon I would have my pockets full of money. The family of Jože Šoštaršič welcomed me cordially, Jože lost no time in giving me comfort and tangible hope, but unfortunately all came to nothing. The colliery operated only three to four days a week, and the wages only covered the food and lodging. I felt miserable and hopeless. The colleagues who lived in Šoštaršič’s house poked fun of me because I was so ill-humoured. There were five workers having food and lodging there, seven all together with me and the landlord included. They are all dead now, no one of them will be reading these lines.
Time passed quickly at Šoštaršič’s. Any coal-miners would regularly drop in, and in those days Imperial boasted quite a considerable number of Slovene families, and single men too. One day when I again complained of America and its false visage, the somewhat aged coal miner Frank Reven gave me a lesson and claimed that sooner or later I would change my mind and would thank heaven for having come to America. His words came true the very next year, when the First World War broke out. Hadn’t I been in America, I might have lost my life in the war, as was the case with two of my brothers.
Some time ago I had put a few fragments of my memoirs on paper, describing Imperial as the American Vienna – the way I imagined it – only to discover now how wrong I, and many others, had been. In those days before Christmas the weather was fine, no really bad cold, so I enjoyed loafing around. A few days before Christmas a fairly long letter from home arrived, the letter was joint work of all my family, and each member expressed an expectation that soon I would send some dollars. Mother reminded me of my 250 florin debt which I had borrowed for my fare. A sister wanted to become a tailoress and would need the money for the sewing-machine. A brother was a heavy smoker and would not mind having some money for tobacco. They all cherished great expectations, but like me they were all grossly mistaken. The holy Christmas time drew near, the merriest Christian holiday, which, in my native land, had always been the source of great pleasure. Remembering Christmas at home I was plunged in deep melancholy and became irresistibly homesick. If I had had the money for the ticket, I would have embarked for my return journey, without a single thought of what would become of me in the future.
On Christmas Eve, in my village we call it badnjak, I was extremely restless, so I went out for a long walk as far as the Cliff Mine settlement. The day was glorious and not too cold, the letter I had got from home I had with me. I took a rest now and then, reading and re-reading the letter and talking to myself, depicting my situation in the darkest possible colours. My people at home were having great expectations, while I was as poor as a church mouse. Then I went on to make out what amount of money I would have to earn to make my plans come true. Even before my journey to America I had roughly delineated the following plan for the future. I would have to make enough money to repay the debt at home. A further sum to provide for my brother’s and sister’s dowry. A third sum for repairs on the house. Then I would be a carefree master of the estate of which I was appointed heir. Such thoughts swarmed in my head during my walk, but the more I weighed the pros and cons the more I fell into despair. I doubted that I was ever able to earn that much money with my own hands in the coal-mine.
In the end all my plans fell into the ditch, and my life took an entirely different turn. Late at night I came back to my room at Šoštaršič’s. The landlord Jože was slightly indignant with my strolling around so long, as he believed I had got lost in those little known parts, or that even something worse might have befallen me. We celebrated Christmas Eve, which, however, did not have the joy and flavour I was used to while at home in my native village. There, it had been pure delight waiting for the midnight mass, the church resounded with merry Christmas songs celebrating the Saviour’s birth. What pleasure it was to climb up into the belfry with the sacristan to ring the bells! On Christmas Eve the chiming would be carried on for a whole hour, and the beautiful harmony of the carillon blessed the country far and wide. Imperial had nothing of the kind, I missed immensely that homely atmosphere, and my thoughts loitered eagerly far away beyond the broad ocean.
My first Christmas at Imperial blew over, bringing no improvement concerning my work. On the contrary, it seemed to be getting worse. In those days a considerable number of Slovene woodcutters had been working far down in the South. They were said to be earning good wages. So I decided to try my fortune there. Imperial, however, remained my home for another month, but in February I set off on the long journey for Georgia to try to find work in those marshy forests. Two years’ work in the forest, and the way of life in the South, I described in a rather substantial contribution to the 1931 Slovene-American Calendar, pp. 64–83 under the title Slovenski gozdarji v Južnih državah (Slovene woodcutters in the South). The vicious circle continued there in a somewhat different way but with the same result: anything I earned I spent during my migrations. We moved from one forest into another, from Georgia to Alabama, and back again into Georgia.
In those days the First World War broke out in Europe. Some of our woodcutters had gone back home just before the outbreak, and they were unfortunate enough to get involved in the war which killed them.
In this point I was more fortunate, the journey to America having saved me from the horrors of the war. But for four long years the contacts with my people at home were interrupted, we could get no exact information as to what was going on, we only had a vague notion that terribly evil things were taking place. In the end, after the war, everything was different, new states were founded, some previous ones had disappeared. Austria-Hungary was dismembered, Yugoslavia came into being. Intrigues and confusions in my native land ultimately deprived me of any desire to go back home, so I never became the owner of the family estate, in fact I am proud to call myself American citizen.
Translated by Stanko Klinar
Published in Glas naroda, 69/1961, № 99. New York, Tuesday, December 19, 1961