Celebrating With Near East Relief: An Orphanage Christmas

How did Near East Relief orphans celebrate Christmas? With tasty treats, small gifts, and sometimes even a visit from Santa Claus himself!

A New Kind of Christmas

Dawn breaks cold and clear over Central Anatolia. Near East Relief has selected January 8 as a day of special celebration. January 6 is Sourp Dznount, the Armenian Apostolic celebration of the birth and baptism of Jesus Christ. The Near East Relief celebration in Mezreh is slightly delayed, but the festivities are no less heartfelt.

More than 2,500 young Genocide survivors greet this special morning in 30 orphanages throughout Harpoot (present-day Kharpert). There are 75 to 100 children in each orphanage, under the watchful eyes of American relief workers and local staff. Some of the young boys and girls were left at the orphanage doors by loving parents who were trying to flee the death marches. Others wandered to Harpoot alone, clad only in rags, after losing their families to violence. Some of the orphans had even escaped from captivity in Turkish homes. Dozens more children brush the sleep from their eyes in the local refugee camps, where they live with parents or relatives lucky enough to have escaped the massacres.

Unperturbed by the chilly air, the orphans gather in the orphanage courtyards. American relief workers wait to take the children on a special outing. The groups make their way to the Annie Tracy Riggs Hospital Compound — which will soon be known as the Near East Relief American Hospital. Some groups of children walk as far as ten miles to reach the hospital gates. What a marvel awaits! The children enter the hospital yard and gather around a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Near East Relief workers have tied together several juniper trees to look like a traditional evergreen. The tree is festooned with paper chains, ornaments made from tin cans, and — amazingly — strands of electric lights!

Each orphanage group spreads blankets on the ground and prepares for the celebration. The children sing Christmas carols for one another. Undaunted by the lack of snow, the kindergartners lead an enthusiastic mock snowball fight. Relief worker Gardiner C. Means leads the children in some gymnastic exercises to help them to keep warm in the cold afternoon air. (Left: Christmas in Mezreh, 1920. Reprinted with permission of Oberlin College Archives.)

With much singing and fanfare, the crowds part to make way for a special guest. Santa Claus, clad in red and white and boasting a convincing beard, pulls into the hospital yard. Harpoot is a long way from the North Pole. Rather than a flying sleigh, this Santa travels in a simple ox cart decorated with red cloth and fragrant evergreen boughs. Instead of eight shining reindeer, Santa’s team is made up of  eight large, slow-moving oxen draped in fancy rugs! A group of orphan boys dressed in white lead the procession.

The children cheer and laugh as Santa and his team circle the yard. This surprisingly slim Santa Claus is none other than Near East Relief worker, Rev. Dr. Henry H. Riggs! Santa Claus stops in front of the sparkling tree. Near East Relief workers like Florence MacDaniels and Dr. Ruth Parmelee have spent several busy nights preparing small gifts for the children. Each orphan receives a muslin handkerchief filled with raisins, roasted chickpeas, and — best of all — three pieces of American candy. Each mairig, or orphanage matron (usually a refugee woman) receives a bar of Ivory soap and a cake of laundry soap from Santa Claus. At the end of a lively day, the orphans make the long journey home to the orphanages.

We know about this particular Christmas celebration through the papers of Near East Relief workers Laurence H. and Frances C. MacDaniels. The MacDaniels worked with Near East Relief from February 1919 to May 1920. They donated their letters and photos from this period to Oberlin College. Mrs. MacDaniels’ loving description of the orphans’ Christmas at Mezreh paints a vivid and amusing picture of a this holiday celebration.


Simple Generosity

The children of Near East Relief celebrated Christmas with simplicity and creativity. Most of the orphans received small gifts in the form of special food treats, like nuts and raisins. The relief workers encouraged the orphans to reflect on the meaning of the season. Many children embraced this idea with all their hearts.

In 1921, the boys at the Near East Relief orphanage at Marash approached the orphanage director with an idea for Christmas. They had seen the more than 2,000 children living in refugee camps near the orphanage. It was all Near East Relief could do to provide the refugee children with one meal per day; they would not be receiving any Christmas treats. The boys in the orphanage asked if they might save their weekly treat of eight walnuts each for the refugee children. During the month of December, the boys dropped their walnuts in a sack when they left the orphanage dining room. By Christmas Day, the boys had collected enough walnuts for all of the children in the refugee camp. The boys distributed the gifts themselves. Their act of generosity turned a simple meal into a holiday dinner.

Bringing Joy

The orphans enjoyed putting on performances at Christmastime. An unnamed boy from Antilyas Orphanage and industrial school wrote an essay in English about a Christmas celebration for the New Near East in December 1927. He described a special platform decorated with flowers and curtains, Christmas carols, speeches, and a visit from Santa Claus. The boy declared that the event was “very deep and splendent,” and that he “cried with joy to see our boys so full of joy and candy.”

Some gifts came all the way from America. In December 1921, the S.S. Allaguash sailed from Philadelphia with supplies, including 5,000 tons of food contributed by Pennsylvania children, 10 tons of Fels-Naptha soap, and 1.5 tons of candy donated by an Indiana candy manufacturer. The Allaguash hit a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and was nearly destroyed. The crew was forced to throw 3,200 cots overboard, but they managed to save the rest of the valuable cargo (including the Christmas sweets). When the ship finally arrived, the city of Batum declared a special holiday in honor of the Allaguash and its crew. Near East Relief worker and Allaguash passenger John J. Mulvaney of Brooklyn received a commendation for his heroic work during the storm. There is no doubt the candy was well-received by the orphans — even if it did arrive a few weeks late.

President Harding himself took an active role in promoting Near East Relief at Christmas. In 1922, Harding placed the S.S. Sabatowan at Near East Relief’s disposal as a “Christmas Ship.” The steamer sailed from New York City with 400 tons of supplies, including practical Christmas gifts of warm clothing, condensed milk, and oatmeal. The Sabatowan left on December 25 and arrived on January 19, giving it the distinction of both departing and arriving on Christmas Day: January 19 marks the celebration of the Nativity in the Armenian Orthodox calendar.

Heartfelt Gifts

The Christmas season was also very important for Near East Relief from an operational prospective. Americans were always generous toward the organization, but the combination of Thanksgiving, Golden Rule Sunday, and Christmas helped to secure Near East Relief’s operations for the following year. The New York City office sent out special appeals. Ever modern in its approach, Near East Relief encouraged Americans to sponsor a child in a loved one’s name rather than buying a tangible gift. The New Near East magazine published a children’s play called “Armenia’s Star of Hope,” in which the Christmas Spirit visits American and Armenian children. Children were encouraged to perform the play and collect food and money for Near East Relief.

For those looking for a unique and special Christmas gift, Near East Relief had an answer. Why not consider a beautiful handmade item from Near East Industries? By purchasing embroidered linens, delicate lace, and hand-painted pottery, the gift-giver was not only giving a future heirloom to a loved one. He or she was also giving the gift of a livelihood to an adult refugee or an orphanage graduate.

Happy holidays, and best wishes for a healthy and joyful New Year from your friends at the Near East Relief Historical Society!