Memories of a Christmas long ago; toys were scarce but love abounded


Thanksgiving Day I asked my nine-year-old grandson what he wanted for Christmas. He was starting out the door to play with his remote-controlled battery-operated race car which he had only recently finished paying for with money he had earned doing odd jobs around the house.

“I don’t know,” he said, but immediately began to think of some other very expensive electronic toy he could ask for so he wouldn’t have to pay for it himself.

After he departed, I thought about my earliest recollections of Santa Claus.” The Night Before Christmas” was in one of my oldest brother’s old school books. Mother had read it to me so often I got so I could read it myself. I must have been five years old the year I memorized the poem. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and all of Santa’s reindeer were very real to me. It would be another 25 years before anyone found out about Rudolf.

I never bothered to write Santa Claus a letter.. Mother said nobody ever saw Santa Claus. She said he would hear me if I whispered up the chimney what I wanted him to bring me. Since I had never heard of a telephone, much less a radio or a television, that sounded as plausible to me as the “Now I lay me down to sleep” that I said to Jesus every night. Mother reminded me that Santa had lots of other little boys and girls to take care of, so I was not to be a pig and ask for more than one thing. In 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression, I suppose he was strapped for funds.

I crept to the chimney, in awe that Santa could hear me, suddenly shy, as I whispered that I wanted a blackboad or a doll bed. I had pored over the Sears, Roebuck catalog but couldn’t decide which one I wanted. I would let Santa surprise me.

Christmas Eve finally came to the three-roomed tenant farmer’s house in Smith Mills, Kentucky. We swept the floor and tidied the room for Santa’s expected visit. I pinned my clean stockings (my other pair) together and hung them over the back if a straight chair. Our fireplace was a working fireplace that was our only source of heat. One did not dare hang a stocking he expected to get filled on the mantelpiece. (We called it a fireboard.)

I remember trying desperately to go to sleep in the room still lit by the flickering fire. The featherbed was soft over the firm straw tick we used for a mattress. I lay there between my parents and closed my eyes tightly. I didn’t think to wonder why my daddy hadn’t banked the fire as he usually did. (When he banked the fire, he covered it with ashes so the live coals would be there in the morning and the fire could be kindled from them.)

Mother had washed my doll’s dress, cleaned her up, and set her in a chair to let Santa know, she said, that I did not need a new doll.

Christmas morning, when I woke up, the fire was burning brightly. My stockings were knobby with oranges, apples, nuts and candy. I’m sure there was stick candy, as well as chocolate drops. Though I don’t remember that particular Christmas, there was usually a real coconut, which I did not care for, but my mother usually worked some magic with, as it later appeared on the table as the main ingredient of a pie or cake.

There, beside the chair where the doll, Betty Lou was sitting, was a blackboard AND a doll bed! Mother explained that Santa must have misunderstood me. He must have not heard the “or” and thought I said “and”.

It did not dawn on me to wonder why Santa did not come to my brothers, who were eleven and thirteen years older than I, nor did I know that in more affluent homes, all family members exchanged gifts at Christmas.

We all ate the candy, fruit and nuts. I was happy that Santa had misunderstood me and brought me the blackboard and the doll bed.

That 1930 Christmas I could not have been happier. I had never been cold or hungry, unclothed, unwashed or unloved. I was in the bosom of a sober, hard-working Christian family and Santa Claus had provided my dearest wish.
Because the love and care provided me was all-encompassing and as free as the air I breathed, I did not realize how blessed I was.

I thought I was happy because Santa Claus had brought me the blackboard and the doll bed.


June Rice is a writer and a retired teacher living in Louisville. This column appeared in her 1989 book, EDUCATION AND COMMON SENSE. 


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