“Christmas waives a magic wand over the world and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” — Norman Vincent Peale, 1898-1993
Many of us grew up hearing stories from our parents or grandparents about the Great Depression. Today we are living in what many call the “Great Recession,” and we are certain these are the worst economic times since the Great Depression. As Christmas approaches, we wondered, what was Christmas like in the Great Depression?
In the depression with 25 percent unemployment and those who did have a job making meager wages, parents did not have much money for toys. We talked with C.B. Roper — along with several other North Carolinians — who remembers getting a shoebox with one orange, some candy and a dime for Christmas.
Rockingham’s Joyce Warden, whose mother died when she was 3 years old, said that her family did not have a Christmas tree but she did remember getting candy, an orange and a doll. She was delighted with the doll as toys were precious in the hard economic times. Joyce also remembers riding in a mule drawn wagon or walking to church, as most families did not own a car.
Clayton Ramsey especially appreciated the gift of a pair of cloth gloves during the depression. Boys, he said, might receive bib overalls and girls were given hand sewn patterned dresses made of feed sacks, along with perhaps one key present like a doll. Self sufficiency ruled the day. Raymond Connors remembers his dad made all his toys, which included wagons and a bow with arrows.
Families would head for the woods to cut their own tree. Dorothy Connors told us about a small pine her dad cut for Christmas and her delight when Santa brought her a small doll house. Ruth Slagle remembered cedar trees her dad got from the woods and decorations made of paper. A few cherished glass ornaments and wood carvings her dad made completed the tree. She remembers Santa coming to their home every year to play the banjo and how sorry she was that her dad was always gone when Santa came and that he missed seeing Santa.
Agricultural self sufficiency was critical. Kay Durandetto’s family raised chickens, potatoes and rabbits. Kay remembers unemployed people standing in lines to get flour, milk and bread. All of her family’s tree decorations of paper chains and stars were homemade. Marjorie Fendrick remembers her grandparents bringing them vegetables and eggs they had raised. Her presents included fruit, candy and a new bicycle. Carl Fendrick talked about how happy he was with the used bike with no fenders he got for Christmas.
Ruth Slagle’s family raised wheat, corn, cane, sweet potatoes, beans, carrots and tomatoes on their farm. In our interviews, self sufficiency from agriculture stood out as an important way families survived the depression and had more at Christmas.
Those we spoke with remembered Christmas during the depression as a happy time. Christmas was home grown. There were fewer gifts, more self sufficiency and very little money. People had close ties to extended family and church and made their own Christmas ornaments and gifts. Christmas meant hand sewn clothing or hand me downs, homegrown and home preserved food and tracking through the woods to find a tree.
Those were challenging times and it became obvious to us, despite our current difficult economic times, that our economy is in far better shape than the economy of the Great Depression. Few of us would relish hitching the mule to a wagon or walking to church, perhaps in icy rain or snow.
As we celebrate Christmas this year, we remember with admiration those who struggled through the great depression. But, we are heartened that they did not let hardships and challenges take away the joy of Christmas.
— Gordon Mercer is president emeritus of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. Marcia Gaines Mercer is a writer and published author.