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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Homemade Cheer: Christmas During the Great Depression

From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol onward, so many stories have been written about people managing to make Christmas merry even under the direst of circumstances, be it fire, flood or famine—or more often, a simple lack of funds. But during America’s Great Depression, this challenge wasn’t confined to storybooks—it was a challenge that nearly everyone faced.

“For many thousands of people this is going to be a different Christmas,” wrote the editor of Successful Farming magazine in the December 1932 issue. “It is fellowship, love, understanding, sympathy that is most needed this year. All the tinsels and lights, all the extravagant show, cannot take the place of the real spirit of Christmas. This should be predominately a children's Christmas. And that need not be done extravagantly [as] the greatest happiness comes from the simple things of life.”

For many people, Christmas was just one more day on which to struggle to put food on the table, to keep warm, perhaps to pay the rent that kept a roof over their heads. Anything more than that was extra. But many did manage to celebrate, in whatever way they could manage—and during those times when people had so little, even the smallest gift was special. Children of families who could afford it woke to a stocking filled with nuts, candy, and fruit such as oranges, a treat that many stores only stocked around the holiday season. Those fortunate enough to have a family member with a paying job might receive a store-bought gift of clothing or a toy. Some families came up with creative schemes of exchanging things they already owned—the term “re-gifting” had not yet been coined, but its meaning was certainly known! Others gave homemade gifts, such as a wooden sled or other wooden toys built by a father; or sweaters, mittens, and scarves knitted by a mother.

Not everyone had a Christmas tree, but some did—often people who lived in the country and could cut it down themselves. City dwellers who couldn’t afford to buy a tree sometimes still got one by waiting until late on Christmas Eve when tree vendors had abandoned their extra stock, leaving it free for the taking. People usually adorned their trees with homemade decorations like paper chains and strings of popcorn and berries, though some might have store-bought ornaments left over from the more prosperous days of the 1920s.

However paltry and makeshift some of these celebrations may sound today, Depression-era children didn’t see them that way. As many put it, everyone was poor, so they didn’t see themselves as more unfortunate than others; they were simply happy with what they did have. Those practical gifts of coats and clothing were hailed almost as eagerly as toys, for they meant warmth during winter days of sledding, snowballing, and other games in the snow—amusements which, then as now, provided hours of enjoyment for no cost at all.

Today, our economy is in the midst of a recession, and many believe we will see another Great Depression before long. I wonder—how would those caught up in the rush, expense, and commercialism of a modern Christmas react if they found themselves in the same position as our grandparents and great-grandparents? Would our generation be able to celebrate a happy and contented holiday with only the little that love and resourcefulness can make out of a few meager dollars? Only time will tell—but at any Christmas, prosperous or difficult, we would do well to remember and learn from the courage and Christmas spirit of those who were able to make so much happiness out of so little.

POSTED BY:  Elisabeth Grace Foley

In Elisabeth's newly released short story, two efforts to concoct a bit of cheer for a Depression-era Christmas intersect in a surprising way. Some Christmas Camouflage is available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, Kobo and at Smashwords and other ebook retailers.

And check out the Legacy Vintage Collection's Christmas offering:

The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Professionally edited and formatted for today's e-readers, and featuring chapter artwork, a glossary, and the touching Christmas poem "Das Krist Kindel." Download the Legacy Vintage Collection Enhanced eBook Edition today for 99