A Christmas memory

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 “hard times” that surrounded my everyday life. My dad was employed at the big mill 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 who loved me and the attention of two older brothers and two sisters, one of them too young to know 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 to capture the attention of 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 light wrapped around the lightposts on the town square, but nothing in comparison to what one sees today. Back in the village, a small tree with perhaps one string of lights, red, blue and green, might be seen here and there. It was hard enough to put something 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!

This 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 for buyers who would give me 25 cents each for the trees. I was lucky and I 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 in my pocket.

Another lady, a widow who lived nearby, hired me to split a load of pine slabs she had bought at the sawmill.

The wood was used for fuel in the big wood-burning stove 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 in her back yard.

Instead of the quarter that had I 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.

We had candy bars for Christmas. What a sweet feast we all had as we sat around the open fireplace and listened to Grandpa’s tales of faraway places. 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 Grandpa would make to our house.

By nightfall a deafening hush would have fallen over 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 Santa had left behind would be put to good use. The leftover cakes and pies soon would be gone and another Christmas would become just a memory – a place to visit over and over again.

Author: Rachel Howell

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