In the years of the Great Depression and World War II, country folks observed Christmas but in ways that varied from family to family and were less overwhelming than today’s extravaganzas. Wise people call the change “the commercialization of Christmas.” Back then, gift giving was limited by financial constraints or not done at all. Still, it was a fine time for all, except in the poorest of families.
I grew up in contrasting Christmas celebrations. In my father’s family there was no gift giving, never had been. He remembered only some fruit for his holiday treats. They were not impoverished. It was simply family culture, perhaps rooted in religious beliefs. However, they gathered together at the home place every Christmas to feast and enjoy one another. Sometimes, there was a hunt — quail or doves — after the midday meal. Sometimes, the four brothers would compete to determine who was the best shot of the day by shooting tiny targets with a 22-caliber rifle. The targets were brass from 22 cartridges that had been fired. Shooting off-hand from 20 feet, that is a challenge for any shooter. Meanwhile, the children played at any of many games. Cousins became like siblings.
By contrast, in the home of Mother’s parents, children received gifts — from their parents only — just after the traditional oyster stew supper on Christmas Eve. Earlier, the men went quail hunting if any of them had a reliable bird dog. I was glad when they had good luck and added quail and grits to the evening meal. I was not a fan of oyster stew, but could abide anything that was consumed quickly so we could get to the Christmas tree and its treasure.
There was usually only one gift for each child, two if both were inexpensive. For years, there were just four children — my much younger brother, Jimmy, and me, and our cousins, Kenneth and June. Sometimes, Granddaddy Williams would dig out his snap-closure change purse and enrich us with nickels and dimes, which would buy ice cream cones, RC Colas or candy bars. These cousins also became like siblings.
Christmas in the country was celebrated in some churches. A typical “program” involved re-enactment of the birth of Christ, complete with reluctant boys wrapped in someone’s bathrobes, an older girl as Mary and others as angels. Before the church and state issue forced changes, there were Christmas skits and carols in most schools.
World War II brought greater prosperity to back woods places as well as cities. There was demand for everything that farmers grew and, although federal price controls kept prices for those products from skyrocketing, the same sort of rules controlled costs of production. The was no unemployment. Shortages of essential materials limited the availability of many things, including gift objects. However, the pace of giving picked up and the momentum never slowed afterwards.
The key to wonderful Christmas celebrations is to be at home and home is more than place. It is the people who live there and create a living place for their families. The homes of my grandparents were family places and being part of those families gave birth to joy at Christmas and many other times.
Time takes its toll on people and places. Thus, the home of my parents became the center of life. After Annette and I married, the Slater house in Cobbtown became home, too, complete with several siblings, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts and cousins. I was given another set of parents, siblings and other kin. There was hunting with new brother (not brother-in-law), Joe, just being with Glen, Alton, Charles and later their wives. Yes, there were presents because Dad Troy gave Mother Essie Mae some money — not a fortune — to buy gifts for all children who were to be on hand Christmas day. Somehow, she managed to do it. We also found the money to buy something for the two of them.
For seven of the first 11 years of our marriage, we were in college in Athens, seminary in Wake Forest or working in Raleigh. Wherever we lived, there was contentment with one another and our children, but no place was home. Christmas for us could be celebrated only at home with our families in Georgia. Minutes after my last hour of work, we were on the road with every inch of the car packed with kids, clothes and presents. Sometime after midnight, we arrived home, usually Cobbtown as the first stop, with Mother waiting for us. Few things this side of heaven compare with her warm hugs, freshly brewed coffee and fruit cake baked with her incomparable recipe.
We did unstinting Christmas celebrations at both homes. My parents assumed the Christmas Eve festivities, which in one way or another lasted all day. Make way for Momma’s “Lady Baltimore Cake” and coffee or cold milk. There were presents. She converted Daddy. Our children, Gary and Elizabeth, were their only grandchildren for several years and she just had to give each of them several gifts.
Christmas Day, the celebration resumed at Slatersboro, where a crowd assembled where a dinner table and sideboards groaned with their loads of food. The lady of the house had been preparing for weeks and then got serious with her cooking sometime just after dawn. Her grown daughters and daughters-in-law added their offerings. Each of them was an accomplished cook. In the afternoon, there were presents — now for grandchildren — but good things for the grandparents, too.
The contrast between then and now involves more than commercialization of Christmas. It is difficult to establish home as a place when many people move every two or three years following their work. Intact marriages — nuclear and extended — are the exception rather than the usual. Bouncing children back and forth between parents defies their integration into family because they must re-identify family at each site.
At my grandparents’ homes almost all of their children and grandchildren lived within a few miles. The modern world of work causes children and grandchildren to be located far from their places of origin. Without a family place and family in that place, it is difficult for people even to get together for Christmas. Being tired, it probably feels like home to them, at least until the next job transfer.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.