Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

A Country Christmas Of The Thirties

by Norris Chambers

   In the old days Christmas was simple, but it was sincere. Money was scarce, but usually a small portion of the year’s income was spent on things for Christmas. It might not be anything except some fresh fruit and nuts along with a little store-bought candy and a Woolworth gift for the children, but it was a special time of the year and everyone felt the benevolent spirit of the period.

  Christmas didn’t start as soon then as it does now - at least not in the country and the little country towns. The holiday spirit began to come to life about the first of December and continued until after New Year.

  The holiday preparation began in school with the teacher’s announcement that the room would be decorated for Christmas and the assigning of different tasks to different groups of students. The popcorn group would provide gallons of popped corn to be made into white strands of decorative material by using a large needle and string and piercing each piece to place it the string. The tree committee would be in charge of obtaining a tree to be placed in the room and decorated. The lighting group would take care of providing tree lights. This was usually candles, since most country schools did not have electricity. There was a gift management group whose job it was to receive gifts and place them on and around the tree and to be sure every student received a gift. The teacher gave a small gift to all the students and most of the students gave one to the teacher.

  Everyone was involved in the Christmas planning. Those not on a committee were assigned to help the teacher purchase and assign gifts. There was a donation can with a coin slot in the lid. This money was to be used for those who were not able to afford gifts. This can collected a considerable number of nickels, dimes and pennies. In our school there were several “oil field kids” whose families had a regular income, and they were very generous in their contributions. I suppose schools that were not so fortunate didn’t do very well with the contribution can, but I am sure they provided for the less fortunate in some manner.

  In our part of the country cedar or pine trees were not grown and artificial trees were unheard of. Occasionally the tree committee obtained a cedar tree of proper dimensions from another area, but usually we were furnished a five or six foot live oak tree. Live oaks stay green all winter, and this was a good second choice for a Christmas tree. Any kind of tree, when properly decorated, is an excellent symbol of Christmas.

  One year I was on the lighting committee. We could easily have found enough candle clips and candles for the tree, but I wanted to try something different. I managed to buy several small dial light bulbs with my ‘possum hide money and borrowed a car battery from my brother, who operated a garage and filling station in the little town where I went to school. With a soldering iron and a spool of insulated wire from a Model T Ford coil, I made a long string of tree lights. Of course the bulbs were all clear. We corrected this is by wrapping them in various colored cellophane. This was obtained from various packing and candy wrappers. The lights, when connected directly across the battery were very bright and tended to get too hot for the cellophane. I corrected this by wiring about four of them in series, then connecting those groups in parallel. This way we had many lamps with a low brilliance and a big savings on the current drawn from the battery. Even then, the bulbs were about as bright as the candles would have been.

  About two weeks before Christmas the tree was brought in and placed in the front corner of the school room and we began decorating it. Popcorn strings were wound around it like tinsel and the lights were strategically placed. Brightly colored ornaments were hung from the branches. These consisted of everything from small, pretty bottles to colored pieces of cardboard. Even a few store-bought ornaments appeared.

  Colored paper chains were hung across the room and around the doors and windows. These chains were made of paper links glued into a chain with paste. If store-bought paste wasn’t available, a good substitute was made from flour and water. Pictures of Christmas scenes were hung on the walls. Some of these came from magazines and others were drawn by the more artistic students.

  The gifts were placed on and around the tree during the last week of school before the Christmas holidays. The lights were turned on for a short period two times a day.

  On Friday the big celebration started after lunch. The program consisted of students reciting poems, singing songs and performing appropriate one -act plays. Sometimes the teacher would read stories or organize a spelling match (They were usually called “spelling bees”).

  At last the gift committee and the teacher’s committee took the gifts from the tree and distributed them to the students, who were seated quietly at their desks. At this time it was permissible to start eating the goodies. Everyone left the school room in a happy mood, brought on by Christmas and the thought of no school the next week.

  Most of the local churches had Christmas Eve programs with a real dressed up Santa Claus. Many goodies were dispensed here, as well as some gifts. The program was similar to the school programs. Poems were recited and short plays were presented. Of course there was a lot of group singing of Christmas carols and favorite church songs. At home, a similar process had been performed. There was a small Christmas tree and a decorated parlor, or front room. The paper chains ran across the room in many directions and stockings were hung on the mantel. Mistletoe was obvious in appropriate places. If it were a musical family, Christmas songs were sung on Christmas Eve. If songs were not sung, games were played and corn was popped, chocolate fudge, peanut brittle or vanilla taffy were made and eaten. Christmas Eve was a happy time. In most homes gifts were exchanged by the grown-ups and children. Santa’s gifts were placed under the tree secretly during the night for the Christmas morning surprise. The stockings were filled with fruit, nuts, candy and small playthings. On Christmas morning everyone was up early to see what Santa Claus had brought. Children played with their toys on Christmas morning and enjoyed the special Christmas dinner. Sometimes relatives and neighbors, who didn’t have children at home, came for the festive dinner and visited most of the day.

  Christmas was the time for fireworks. July Fourth was not a fireworks occasion then as it is now. Firecrackers and Roman candles were cheap and most families could afford a few. Sparklers were also quite popular. Most general merchandise stores then kept fireworks for Christmas, and continued to sell them until they were all gone. Cherry bombs were a favorite, but were more expensive. They were powerful enough to rip a tin can apart, and were considered dangerous. Small children were not allowed to play with them. Some older kids received serious injuries from them. Cherry bombs later became illegal. Any fireworks can be dangerous and inflict injuries as well as start fires. Although fireworks contributed a major portion of Christmas celebration, the real meaning of Christmas is what the old timers of the twenties and thirties remember best.

  And this Old Timer wishes a safe and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone, young and old, or in between!


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