The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Hardtimes Christmas

By Marcia Long © 1986

Issue: December, 1986

All of my childhood Christmases were hard compared to the most modest of today's, but there was one that stands out, in the year when we didn't see any money. All of our neighbors in our isolated little community had the same problem. We, all but the store keeper and three or four veterans of World War I who drew disability pensions, lived by barter. A dozen eggs bought a package of paper for school, a pound of butter a pencil. Two good laying hens were worth a sack of flour, we mostly used corn meal, and coffee beans to be roasted at home or five pounds of sugar. Our livestock ate grass, hay and garden produce grown from seeds saved the year before. Without talking about it, we all knew there would be no orders from Sears & Roebuck catalog going off this year.

This was my tenth Christmas, and at that age the holiday spirit flourished in spite of circumstances. Cappie, my best girl friend and I had heard of another child making gifts at home and were sure we could do the same. We were even more ambitious; we decided to make as many gifts as we could.

But what to make, how to get started? What were our resources?

Every scrap of cloth was cherished, including flour sacks and clothing too damaged to be mended any more. Mothers remodeled old adult clothes for the children when possible, used sacks for shirts and blouses, and put every leftover bit of material in the quilt scrap bag. Of course every ten year old girl knew how to sew and piece quilts; her mother would be shamed if she didn't. But how to get some of that precious cloth for ourselves?

We thought such a request would be as hopeless as asking for a pig or calf for ourselves, but it actually wasn't so tough. Our mothers doled out as much cloth as they could spare, warned us not to waste thread, reminded us that chores and school work came first, and we were on our way. We had three weeks left before Christmas.

What could we make that some other kid would want? Well, every girl in the community had a doll of some sort, aged, battered, or a homemade affair of rags, but valued none the less. We made doll dresses, doll sheets (all dolls have to be put down for naps), and doll quilts laboriously stitched from tiny bits of fabric too small for anything else. We got so carried away that even the girls we didn't like or play with got a gift.

Boy gifts were limited to our cousins and Cappie's brother, which was just as well, since we couldn't come up with anything better than kites, made with any paper we could get and sticks from the kindling pile. String and tails were not includes; materials was to scarce. Naturally the kites could not be flown until March, but making them made us feel good.

Now for the little kids and the parents. Bits of material too small for doll clothes made tiny pincushions for our mothers, and strings too narrow even for that were woven together for multicolored pot holders. But Cappie and I had other resources. Our teacher gave us old magazines because we loved to read anything we could get our hands on. We also had the fruits of a wise investment of two pennies apiece months ago, when we sometimes had pennies. We wouldn't have understood "unethical anyway." We bought two penny postcards each. One went to Sears & Roebuck, asking for a catalog of our own (the family catalog was reserved for other purposes). The second card went to a wallpaper company, who responded with a book as big as the Sears catalog, full of page size samples. Of course no one we knew had wallpaper, but the pretty patterns were wonderful to drool and dream over. Now, with paste made from water and the flour our mothers grudgingly gave us these pages covered rocks to be used for doorstops, jars and bottles for vases, any small boxes we could find "just to hold stuff" and folders with a slip of paper inside saying "Merry Christmas."

The magazines had ads and illustrations that could be used for picture books for the little kids, backed with wallpaper samples, naturally. Paper dolls families were cut out of our Sears catalogs along with the furniture for their make believe homes, and never mind if their dinner plates were bigger than their stoves. All is fair in make believe. Our special girlfriends received these as well as the doll clothes. We were on a making streak.

Daddies and other male relatives presented a problem, which we solved with a lot of hard work and not a little duplicity. We gathered hickory nuts in the woods, and if you've never tried to pick the meat out of a hickory nut (hickory nuts to us then) you don't know what tedium is. The next step was to get molasses. We "borrowed" from several housewives, explaining its purpose since we couldn't pay it back, and asked the most sympathetic one to let us make candy in her kitchen. We boiled our molasses, added a lump of butter donated by the lady whose kitchen we used, and dumped in our nut meats and poured our candy on plates to cool. It was as good as pralines if you've never eaten pralines, and no one in the community ever had. The hardened pieces we wrapped in pages from our magazines.

Our deadline was the day before Christmas Eve, which was to be our delivery day. After chores we had more freedom than the kids of today, but no parent in our little community would let 10 year olds run from house to scattered house after dark. We worked as late as we were allowed to stay up that night by a kerosene lamp in my bedroom, Cappie was spending the night with me because as an only child I had a cubby hole for a room of my own, she also had permission to spend the day after.

Christmas Eve was cold but clear. Cappie helped me with my morning tasks so we could get out early with our packages. Our method was typical of 10 year olds: deposit our gifts at the front door of a house, yell "Merry Christmas," and run away as fast as we could, giggling like crazy. Dogs barked at us, housewives looked out their windows before opening the door, kids yelled "What are you doing?" and we ignored it all. We ran through the woods and over rough trails, dodging everyone who came near us. We even skipped noon meals; our mothers thought each was eating with the other and didn't worry. There were no phones to be used to check. Several times we had to visit the old corn crib where our makings were stashed; we had too much stuff to carry all at once. But by sundown something had been left at every house. We were too tired to move and too exhilarated to care. There remained only the family's gifts to set out, and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done to stay awake until my parents slept so I could sneak their gifts onto the kitchen table.

Christmas came on Sunday that year, which made things just about perfect. Everybody in the area came to our one church, of course. The grownups were telling each other about the useful and "interesting" things they found at their doors, saying things like "Now who could have known I didn't have a decent pot holder?" If they exchanged knowing smiles we weren't aware.

The kids were babbling away about what they had found, as well. Most of them asked what we were doing running around all the day before, and some wanted to know if we'd made their things. We had secretly made gifts for each other (those were left on our respective doorsteps just before full dark), so we could tell what we had found. To the other questions we just grinned and asked the others the same thing.

I don't remember whether I got a gift from anyone but Cappie or not, but it really didn't matter. I do remember this as one of the busiest and most exciting Christmas seasons I've ever experienced.