The celebration began with the blast of a tin horn.
It was silly, really. But Rudy Walter loved the theater of it. He blew the horn to alert St. Nicholas to scamper back up the chimney.
With equal relish, he would pull back the curtain - sheets stretched across a clothesline - to reveal the bounty St. Nick had left behind: Brightly wrapped presents, stockings stuffed with candy, nuts and other goodies.
The family basked in the glow of the candles that lighted the impossibly huge Christmas tree in the corner of the tiny West Baltimore home. The tree was always so big its top was bent back against the ceiling.
The most important moment of the year in the home of Rudolf and Mary Walter had arrived once again. Christmas Eve was about family.
One hundred years after the first Walter family Christmas, Walter descendants will gather yet again.
Instead of a modest town house, they will occupy a social hall in Arbutus this afternoon. More than 100 people representing four generations are expected to be there, ranging in age from 86 years to a mere 7 months.
They will come from as far away as California. For many, this is the highlight of Christmas season, the one chance to see distant cousins, great-uncles or great-grandchildren. They will hug and kiss, share a year's worth of gossip, debate the Orioles' recent signings, and maybe talk of all those Christmases past.
"It's magical," said Alma Kalman, 76, the youngest of Rudy and Mary's 11 children. "It's the best part of the holiday."
In the Walter family tree, this Christmas tradition is more firmly rooted than any pine, fir or spruce. Maybe some of the particulars have changed through the decades, but the central elements are constant: It is a time for togetherness and sharing, for reconnecting with the past and for savoring the rich foods of the season.
They claim no ingenuity in this. Rather, their experience is the consummate Baltimore immigrant family tale of opportunity, faith and love.
"I think there's always been a lot of love here," said Alice Walter, who married into the family 59 years ago. "We've always been close. You don't see many families like that today."
It all began with Rudy Walter, who came to Baltimore from Germany in the 1880s, jumping his merchant ship in port. A one-time pre-med student in Leipzig, he had a falling-out with his own family - a clash with a stepmother (at least that's how family legend recalls it) - and had joined the merchant marine on a lark.
He went to work in a brewery. It was there he met his future wife, Mary Haigis, whom he wed at St. John's Lutheran Church in 1897.
By all accounts, Walter was a man with a great capacity for love. He spoke little English, but doted on his children. Tall and lean, he sported a handlebar mustache and wore a smile underneath it. Mary, 17 years his junior, was a second-generation German-American, a no-nonsense, hard-working hausfrau who kept her brood in line.
"My father never had a cross word for us," recalled Jenny Bandell, 86, the oldest surviving child. "My mother was Hitler."
She likely needed a firm hand in a family so large living on the modest wages of a brewery worker. Depression-era family stories recall children scavenging for errant coal beside West Baltimore's railroad tracks and the eldest children leaving school by sixth grade to help support their siblings.
But Christmas was sacred. On Christmas Eve, the tree was erected and the family shared gifts. Even in the lean years, there were presents. A doll, tin soldier, book, new sweater.
Mary Walter would always spend a month baking cookies and other confections: Her children's favorite raisin bread, sugar cookies rolled thin and cut into stars and other holidays shapes, and most importantly, the anise-flavored springerle cookies made with a rolling pin embossed with square cookie molds.
Presents were opened that night, stockings left for Christmas morning. It was the German tradition.
"Christmas Eve was the longest day of the year," said Carroll Walter, 78, the 10th-born child and now a retired Catonsville postal carrier. "I always thought, 'Gee, the American kids have to wait another day.' It was wonderful."
As the family grew older and grandchildren became a larger part of the ceremony, the holiday began to take on its larger-than-life quality. Before the Christmas tree could be unveiled, Rudy Walter would duck behind the sheets to noisily converse with St. Nick, although precisely what they discussed was always hard to discern.
It was then that the horn was blown and grandchildren rushed in to find their gifts and perhaps catch a fleeting glimpse of the jolly man himself.
"We'd get a lot of presents," recalled Rudolf Walter of Reisterstown, a grandson and namesake. "We'd probably get as many presents there as we would at our own homes on Christmas."
The Christmas tree sat on a platform that occupied nearly a third of the tiny living room on South Franklintown Road, a thoroughfare so crowded with German meat cutters it was known as Butcher's Lane.
A Christmas garden was created underneath the tree with a railroad, a lighted church and houses built to scale. Sauerkraut was served with ham and turkey at dinner - although Rudy Walter, the family's native German, was the only one who didn't much care for the sour cabbage dish.
The elder Walter died in 1942. But the Christmas Eve parties continued, if only to spare Mary Walter from having to visit her children individually. (She died in 1957.)
The tradition eventually fell to son Julius and his wife, Alice. They wound up playing host to the affair in 1950 and for the next 25 years. Their parties attracted record crowds, spilling out beyond the family's living room to every level of their Baltimore rowhouse and into the back yard.
"It was so crowded that if you weren't standing by the food table, you might just get left out," said Charles Zito, 61, a Walter grandson and Linthicum retiree. "Once you got into a room, you were pretty much locked in."
The post-World War II era also ushered in an Americanization of the family. It was no longer St. Nick, but Santa Claus who delivered presents. A family friend always played the role.
The party was moved from Christmas Eve to the Sunday before Christmas. The horn and curtain were gone. The food now included cold cuts, baked beans and hot dogs.
The family became more diverse. While a generation earlier, Mary Walter had refused to attend her daughter Rose's wedding because she was marrying a Catholic, now there were Polish, Italian and Norwegian family branches.
"We turned into a melting pot," said Zito.
Fifteen years ago, the gathering moved to the Arbutus Social Club. It had simply grown too large. A committee was created to organize the annual event. Fees were charged - now $5 for children and $10 for adults.
Attendance began to dip. Younger family members moved away. The influence of Rudy and Mary Walter seemed to wane.
But this year, a larger crowd is expected. It is, after all, the centennial anniversary of the couple's first family Christmas.
The party is set to begin at 1 p.m. Word has it that Santa will visit around 2 with gifts for the youngest.
Those who are able to make it might want to ask Alma about the year she kept chalk in her pocket because she was so certain St. Nick was bringing her a blackboard.
Or they should chat with Mary Johnson, a Walter granddaughter, about the cheesecake her "Gross-Pop" loved and how he used to reserve a slice for her.
Or maybe talk to Alice about the year the party almost had to go without beer when cases of it were stolen off their back steps.
Or how about that Christmas Eve where it snowed and only the hardiest family members, pulling sleds filled with gifts, could make it to the party?
Against the odds, the Walter family tradition will continue this year and, their offspring insist, into the foreseeable future. Maybe it's something in the genes.
"If my father could see this, I know he would love it," said Bandell.
Pub Date: 12/20/98