It was a mill village Christmas
By Bill Shepard
Not much remains of the way that it was in the year of which I write. The world has changed many times over, but a memory lingers, and it is from that memory that I write.
The year was 1935, although it could have been any one of the late ’20s or ’30s. The Great Depression had a stranglehold on the world, and a new president was searching diligently for ways to break the grip. It seemed an elusive search!
I was barely in my teens, unaware of the so-called “hard times” that surrounded my everyday life. My dad was employed at the big mill that stood in the center of the village and around which all the village life revolved. So, I had food on the table, clothes on my body, and shoes on my feet. I had parents that loved me and the attention of two older brothers and two sisters, one of which was too young to know that I was alive. With all of this going for me, I felt little of the concerns that older people must have felt.
Thanksgiving had come and gone; now Christmas, the most celebrated holiday of the year, was fast approaching. Already, signs of its nearness could be seen on the town square in Darlington, where I lived. The store windows were alive with displays, all designed in a way to capture the attention of the shoppers, passing by.
There were dolls, tea sets, cap pistols and holsters and fireworks galore! All of the above were carefully displayed in a way to capture the fancy of the young. In other store windows, there were displays of suits and furs, overcoats and warm jackets that would appeal to the older and perhaps more affluent. Not many of the villagers could afford the luxury of furs and overcoats.
There were a few strings of lights wrapped around the light posts on the town square, but nothing in comparison with what one sees today. Back in the village, a small tree with perhaps one string of lights consisting of the colors red, blue and green might be seen here and there. It was hard enough to find something to put under the tree, let alone decorations to put on the tree.
School had closed for the long two-week holiday. That, in itself, was reason enough for me to be in a festive mood. It mattered little, if nothing else happened. If Santa didn’t show up at all, if the longed-for snowfall didn’t come, and if the surprise visit from Grandpa did not happen, school was out until way next year! That is the way the kind old principal had said it at the final assembly, before letting out for Christmas. He had a way of dragging out the words, “way next year,” to make them sound like a much longer time than it really was.
All over the mill village the boys, free from school, were scurrying here and there, seeking ways to earn some money to spend for Christmas goodies. It wouldn’t take much, a dollar would go a long way, but dollars were hard to come by in 1935. One most likely would have to settle for less.
I recall going to the nearby woods in search of Christmas trees to sell. Two small pine trees with a board attached to the trunk, for a stand, netted me 50 cents! I had scoured the village in search of buyers who would give me 25 cents each for the trees. I was lucky, and I had found two — whether for want of the trees or out of sympathy for me, I have often wondered. The thing that mattered was the two quarters I had in my pocket.
Another lady, a widow who lived nearby, hired me to split a load of pine slabs which she had recently bought at the sawmill. The wood was used for fuel in the big wood-burning stove that was in her kitchen. After splitting and stacking the wood in pigpen fashion for quick drying, I was asked to rake the leaves that had fallen from the large oak tree that stood in her backyard. Instead of the quarter that I had been promised for my work, I was given four shiny dimes. My Christmas earnings now totaled 90 cents! If I didn’t earn another penny, I could purchase a gift for every family member and have some left for me, and that is exactly what I did!
A small tea set for my sister cost a dime. A pretty box of ladies’ handkerchiefs for Mom cost another dime. A necktie for Dad, which he never wore, and a pair of socks for each of my brothers cost 10 cents each. I still had 40 cents left for myself!
I purchased a box of 10 rolls of caps for the cap pistol I knew I would get from Santa and six boxes of firecrackers, along with two boxes of sparklers. I still had a nickel left with which to buy a large bag of peanut brittle. All the above would be put away until Christmas morning, except the peanut brittle. I would munch on it, all the way back home from town. All my shopping was done at the McClellan 5&10 store on the square. I could now sit back and wait for the special day to arrive. The next big event would be the night Santa arrived on the town square, riding on the back of the big red fire truck! He would have oranges, apples and candy aplenty. No one had to go away empty handed; that is, if they could get through the crowd that thronged the big red truck. There would be more oranges and apples than most village children had seen all year! Children of all ages and even adults would be present to receive the goodies that Santa had to offer. Little children, sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, would have their uplifted hands filled with the goodies Santa had to offer. Perhaps no other event of the holidays could match the excitement that was generated by this occasion.
Back in the village, the remaining days before Christmas would be spent making preparation for the greatest day of them all. The smell of vanilla from the kitchen spoke of cakes, pies and cookies that were being baked and carefully put back until Christmas Day. In the vacant field beyond the village, boys could be seen gathering dried corn stalks and wood from the forest to be used in the big bonfire that would burn all of Christmas Eve night.
This was the time when the boys, those allowed to do so, would stay up all night singing, roasting potatoes, telling jokes, just anything to pass the time of night. At daybreak on Christmas Day, the village would be awakened by the loud noises of firecrackers, cherry bombs (a type of firecracker) and yelling boys, as they ran through the village in celebration of Christmas Day! Afterwards, the boys would return to their homes to see what Santa had left under the tree for them. Then, back to the streets to share and compare with others, their surprises from Santa.
The welcome sound of “dinner time” would not come a moment too soon. The best meal of the whole year was about to be served. The menu consisted of foods that had not been seen all year and would not be seen again until the next Christmas rolled around.
There would be sweet potato pies, with icing on top and baked potatoes with their natural sweetness oozing from them. There would be coconut pies and juicy coconut cake, banana cake and of course, everyone’s favorite — chocolate! The ham that had been saved since the last hog-killing would be boiled tender, along with dressing and dumplings cooked with the big fat hen that had been saved just for this occasion. Hot biscuits and cornbread with plenty of hot coffee for the adults and water for the children would round out this once a year feast.
To make the dinner even better, sometimes a car load of relatives might show up at our house; cousins from nearby Florence might drop by. Nothing could add more to our Christmas festivities than to have this happen.
Yes, oh yes, Grandpa did show up! It was the first time that I could remember his coming at Christmas time. Just like the unexpected snowfall that covered the ground with a white blanket, Grandpa surprised us all. I shall never forget the large brown grocery bag filled with candy bars that were purchased at the neighborhood store. There were more Baby Ruth and Butterfingers bars in that sack than I had ever seen before.
“Fill it up!” Grandpa said to the clerk and threw a 50-cent piece on the counter. In 1935, that meant at least 50 candy bars! What a sweet feast we all had, as we sat around the open fireplace and listened to Grandpa’s tales of faraway places that he had seen. Then Grandpa left as unexpectedly as he had come. To this day, a sort of mystery hangs over that visit. It was the last Christmas visit that Grandpa would make to our house.
By nightfall, a deafening hush would have fallen over all the village. Children, too tired for play and too full to want to eat, were now ready for bed. The noise from one last firecracker would resonate through the street and the lights would go out.
Tomorrow would dawn, and Christmas would be a whole year away. The coldest part of winter was yet ahead. The warm sweaters, socks and long-handle underwear that Santa had left behind would be put to good use. The leftover cakes and pies would soon be gone, and another Christmas would become just a memory, a place to visit over and over again.