It wasn’t like the stark institution where poor Oliver Twist asked for more gruel. It had a more dignified name than orphanage. From age six to 17, I lived at Girard College, then a free Philadelphia residence school for fatherless boys. Actually, because it was founded in the 1830s by wealthy merchant Stephen Girard, my living conditions and education were on par with private boarding schools for rich kids
Even after 80 years, my Christmas memories at Girard are still clear and mostly happily nostalgic. However, because I was one of the few Jewish boys, in my early years there I instinctively knew the holiday was not a natural celebration for me. And boys being boys, there were frequent physical and emotional schoolyard encounters with some of the majority Catholic and Protestant kids. I quickly had to learn the fight or flight theory to survive.
There was a very Christian routine at Girard, which included daily morning chapel services and twice on Sundays. Most of the daily Bible readings and hymns there related to the New Testament. Christmas time was the celebration of the birth of Christ. However, all the holiday social events made it enjoyable even for a six-year-old, slightly confused Jewish kid.
Our residence halls had Christmas trees, with presents for each boy under them. Also, we were taken to one of the city’s top department stores, Snellenberg’s, each December, to be fitted for a new suit. At meal time, there were delicious holiday dishes and sugary desserts. Eat your heart out, Oliver Twist!