Christmas in the 1930s

By Tomm Larson

“Grandpa, why is there an orange in my Christmas stocking?”
“Cause when I was a little boy. . .”
“You were a little boy? That must have been a loooong time ago.”
“It was, I was little way back in the thirties.”
“What’s the thirties?”
“That was a time called the Great Depression.”
“Why was it called that? Was everybody sad?”
“No. . ., well there were a lot of sad times then, but there were lots of fun times too.”
“What kind of fun?”
“Well, lets see. . .”

I poured all the candy and nuts out of my stocking into a big brown, green, white, and red pile so I could get to that orange right away. After nothing but old apples and bottled peaches for two months, a fresh orange was a special treat. I held it close to my face in both hands and took a big whiff of the sunny, tangy smell. I pulled out my pocketknife and carefully cut through the pebbly skin right in the middle, so I could get my fingers between it and the golden-orange treasure underneath.

I didn’t care if Kathleen could keep her peel in one piece — that took too long. I just ripped the skin off in big chunks, pulled the fruit into two halves and shoved most of one into my mouth. I caught the juice running out of my mouth with my thumb so I wouldn’t lose any of it.

This was just the first pleasure of Christmas day. We didn’t seem to have time for all the fun that was waiting. We had stayed up late the night before decorating the Christmas tree and reading the Christmas story. We all had slept in a little, except Ferris, he got up early to milk Bessie that morning and gather the eggs from the chickens.

I had barely finished my orange when Momma sent me out to the root cellar for the potatoes and carrots she needed for Christmas dinner. I didn’t mind so much, I was still proud of the carrots and potatoes. It had been my job to plant and water and weed them this past summer, and we had a good crop. Besides, Dad let me wear his warm sheepskin coat that Uncle Bill, the sheepherder, had given him.

When I came back in, Dad called me into the front room and held out a huge box wrapped in old newspapers. Mine was the last present to be opened. Ferris and John’s presents hadn’t been wrapped that morning. I guess Santa didn’t have enough paper for two flexible flyer sleds. Kathleen and Nita had already opened their gifts, I think they each got Shirley Temple baby dolls, with the curls and everything. I really didn’t care too much about what they got, I was too excited to open my own present.

I crossed my fingers and wished one more time before tearing into the old newspaper. I got the top corner off and had to stop. It came! Santa had found one for me! A genuine Marx electric train just like I had seen in the Montgomery Ward catalog! I finished ripping off the paper and asked Dad to help me set it up. John and Ferris wanted to help too, but Momma stuck her head in from the kitchen and told them to go downstairs to get fruit for dinner.

“Momma, can’t Ferris do it by himself?” John asked.

“No, John, I need four jars of peaches, four jars of pears, two jars of cherries, and two jars of apricots. That’s enough for each of you to make a couple of trips.”

“Why so much?” I could hear the disappointment in John’s whine.

“Well, we all like fruit cocktail,” Momma said, “and I want to take some over to the Petersen’s today too. Mr. Petersen hasn’t been able to find any work for the last three weeks, and they could use our help.”

“Why can’t Mr. Petersen work Momma? Is he sick?” Kathleen asked.

“No, sweetie,” Momma replied, “Mr. Petersen is fine, he was working for the WPA on our new sewer system, but they’ve had to stop because of all the snow.”

Snow! I had almost forgotten, with all the snow we had built a giant snow fort at the school, and John said I could be in his army for the next battle. Maybe we could have a battle today. But I still didn’t have my train set up and we were going to have Christmas dinner in a little while, and I wanted to try the sleds on Fourth Street.

Fourth Street was the best sledding hill in town, and it ran right behind our house. The snow on the street was just about perfect for sledding. It had been packed down pretty firm, but it was thick enough that there wasn’t any dirt showing. The few cars there were in town were parked for the winter. I just knew with a good belly flop on John’s new flexible flyer I could coast all the way to the railroad tracks.

For a minute I thought I couldn’t wait, but then I smelled Christmas dinner again. Momma was baking one of the hams we had raised and smoked ourselves. The smell got my stomach to growling.

“Well Don, you’re going to have to do the rest yourself.” my dad said.

“What?” I asked

“You’ll have to finish setting up the train yourself.” Dad stood and walked toward the kitchen. “I’ve got to go cook the parsnips for dinner.”

“Mmmm, with bacon?” I asked with anticipation.

“Of course, they wouldn’t be Christmas parsnips without bacon.” He replied.

Ham and bacon, fruit cocktail, mashed potatoes, parsnips, with carrot pudding and pumpkin pie for dessert. Christmas dinner was pretty close to heaven.

Then I recalled Dad actually went to the grocery store yesterday and bought fresh lettuce for a green salad, so dinner WAS going to be heaven. He even bought a box of chocolates for Momma, and she always shared her chocolates with us. I’d save all my candy and nuts for later.

Momma had let us hang the girls’ stockings by the chimney. The extra-long cotton kind they wore under their dresses to keep their legs warm, so I had a big pile with four peppermints, ten pieces of ribbon candy, lots of Momma’s home made taffy and honey candy, and lots and lots of nuts. I picked out my favorites, the cashews, to save for the very last.

I got my train all set up and ran it once around the track before Momma told us all to change into our new clothes for Christmas dinner.

My brothers and I each got a new shirt and trousers for Christmas, the girls had new dresses and Dad had resoled our shoes. With the new clothes and a store-bought toy, we didn’t know it was the depression. Our Dad had steady work, and could afford to go to the grocery store once in a while. We could order something from the Sear’s, Roebuck catalog on occasion.

My buddy Eldon wasn’t so lucky. His Dad, like a lot of others, didn’t have a steady job. He took what work he could, when he could find it. Eldon didn’t even have a Christmas tree this year, just some decorations on the wall in the shape of a tree. At least Eldon and his family didn’t have to move, like all those farmers who had to leave Oklahoma and Arkansas because of the terrible dust storms. Still he and his family had to stuff their clothes with newspaper to keep warm. They stuck cardboard in their shoes because they couldn’t even afford a little leather to resole them.

Still, I knew Eldon would get something for Christmas. Mr. Wheeler had been making toy wheelbarrows, and I had seen him take a couple to Eldon’s house last night. My Dad told me that because times were hard, Santa needed as much help as we could give him, and that Mr. Wheeler was one of Santa’s best helpers. He could build just about anything, and he always had enough scrap wood around to make some toys.

“Daddy, can we go ice skating?” Nita asked. She loved to ice skate.

“Maybe a little later, after dinner is cleaned up.” Dad replied.

“It’s going to be pretty cold later.” Momma said.

Then Ferris spoke up. “Warren and Ralph and I are going to build a bonfire by the pond tonight Momma.”

“Well, then I guess we should go ice skating.”

When was I going to find time for all my Christmassing? I felt lucky to have so much fun waiting for me.

“Yep, we did have fun, but I especially liked the oranges.”

“So is that why Santa puts an orange in my stocking, cause you liked them so much?”

“Yes, but he also puts them there to help us remember that not all Christmases are filled with good food and fun toys. The oranges remind us that simple joys make Christmas special.”

Special thanks to Janet Larson, Don Larson, and Helen Wheeler for sharing their memories for this article.

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