Adapting Great Depression Christmas Customs to the New Depression

8 Oct

Chicago ad from the Depression

My parents grew up on opposite sides of the Monongahela River outside of Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. Neither of their families had much money, but one had a house and land, the other an apartment. One had lots of kids, the other just two, a widowed mom, and a grandmother. My Mom was the townie, and remembers having a tree in a box at first, then agitating for a real–albeit small–tree. My Dad was in a quasi-rural area with “hollers,” and they’d go and cut a tree from their property. It’s from him we heard stories of one orange a year (he wasn’t alone; such stories abound–how many requests today with produce memories like these?) and the excitement of a handful of nuts and a special cheese. My Mom got presents–games, then clothes. She said she used to shop at the 5 and 10 (ah, the progenitor of the dollar store, but more fun), but graduated to a real store. In those days the store lured in customers with a coupon book and a lottery aspect. Each week a customer would pay a sum–say a dollar–and at the end of the saving period (five weeks? three months? she isn’t sure) they’d have a lump sum to spend ($30?), save from the grubby hands of little brothers or greedy husbands. Each week the store would draw one ticket, and that customer would have a shortcut to the lump–maybe you were only two dollars into your saving, but you’d get the full thirty dollars nonetheless. If you didn’t do that, you had layaway! Stockings were hung, paper chains in varied colors festooned the tree, Midnight Mass was really at midnight. And if you were lucky enough to be Greek or Russian Orthodox, with a later Christmas date, you could pluck your tree (perhaps with slightly fewer needles) from the sidewalk where the trashmen were due to pick it up. One of the best parts of Christmas in town was visits by relatives and friends, all

Horace Pippin's "Christmas Morning Breakfast" 1945

marked with special foods you didn’t have the rest of the year.

These days, depending where you live, fresh trees may be hard to find or not too economical, but nothing beats their smell and the fun of decorating them. In my day, we had everything our little hearts desired–we were circling potential gifts in the Sears catalogue and elsewhere once Thanksgiving hit. My sister, a planner, partook in the Christmas Club at the bank, socking away $5 or $10 or $20 a week into a special account–but the bank didn’t pluck an account a week and reward the lump sum in advance. There were plenty of special foods and cookie baking and visitors, and it’s still the only time of year we get nuts in the shell and have the cracker and picks handy.

This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. Part of it is about making Christmas and other holidays less about Martha Stewart and new purchases, and more about creating an atmosphere that reinforces specialness–in terms of religion, of family, of season. The creation of memories doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also a thumbs down to gift certificates (except in case of emergencies) and thumbs up to thinking of those you love and searching for just the right item that will bring that look of pleasure to their face.

1955 Spiegel catalogue Christmas decorations

Hey, I’m not trying to match the stores by rushing Christmas. I mention it now because I have a personal challenge ahead. One of my generation in the family has asked for us to hold our giving to each other at $25 per person (parents are the exception, and they don’t know about it). This won’t be easy; we have always liked an overboard Christmas, just for the sheer fun and spectacle of it. But the reasoning behind it can be appreciated (if not shared!), and my challenge begins–how do I not only hold each person at $25, but still have a plethora of things they’ll love to unwrap. Not one nice gift–oh, no. There must be many! I believe I can do it, but it will take passion, a hunter’s training, and a keen eye. No children are involved, just two adult women (easy) and two men (difficult). Let the games begin! For this kind of operation does not allow for the last minute–no, it takes a careful plan of attack.

If you’re trying to hold your spending this year, join me on this adventure and be aware of the free. We’ll continue to revisit this subject, but right now I urge you to look over your credit cards. Do you have any, as I do, that have credits toward gifts? Citibank, for example, has such a program. Some of the gifts are great–but you have to cash in your points this month if the gifts are to arrive in time. Going to make things (yes!)? Then you’d best get busy. Gears must start turning, cranks cranking. I don’t believe in holidays making one nuts–rather, I believe in eating nuts on holidays. We need not be extremists, going into debt or selling our hair like an O. Henry character. The Bon Vivant wants everyone to be happy, and for Christmas to signify an excess of joy. Nobody during the Great Depression spoke of holiday stress and duress–it was a beacon to remind everyone of the precious, and of possibility. Part of my problem is that I was loathe to realize that prices were rising and my salary wasn’t keeping pace; I hadn’t grown up to expect that I wouldn’t be able to afford the expectations of my social class. Well, well, well. There’s an easy solution to that: adjust your expectations for material goods, expand them for rewards for the mind, the eyes, the heart, the spirit.

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One Response to “Adapting Great Depression Christmas Customs to the New Depression”

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