Christmas in the Dust

As the 1930’s wore on, the rain still refused to fall on parts of Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. The dusters got worse, health deteriorated, and money grew scarce as crops withered and what would come to be known as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the country. Every-day life became a battle against nature and necessity.

And yet life itself did go on. School and church were still a part of weekly schedules. There were still chores to be done, meals to be prepared (no matter how meager), and friends and family to visit.

And there was still Christmas.

It’s easy to look back from our 21st century cushion, with our abundance and what some consider over-commercialization of the holiday, and wince at the poverty of a Depression-era Christmas. And while it’s true nowadays we have more physical “stuff,” the holidays of the 1930s were, in some ways, very similar-and perhaps even better–than our own.

While some families today begin decorating for Christmas in November (or-gasp!-September), most decorating back then was done on Christmas Eve. While the drought killed off many trees, a good deal of families were still able to secure one (remember–this was long before plastic Christmas trees came into style!). The decorations were homemade, with either paper or hand-carved wooden ornaments, as well as strings of lights (if you were fortunate enough to have electricity) or candles (if you weren’t). Although some decorated with strings of popcorn or cranberries, most Dust Bowl families simply didn’t have the food to spare for such extravagance, opting instead for paper or strips of fabric.

Presents focused more on necessity than whimsy, with most gifts being homemade or homegrown. Women would make dresses and aprons from old flour sacks or knit hats, gloves, and scarves. Washcloths could be made by sewing together several layers of gauze, then topped with a pretty bow. If families could afford store-bought gifts, they were stretched; a single bar of soap could be cut into 4-6 smaller pieces, wrapped carefully in decorative paper, and given to many different recipients.

Children’s fancies were not completely ignored, however. Magazines carried instructions on how to make dolls or stuffed animals from extra cloth, with names like “Gingham Dog” or “Hattie the Red-Checked Elephant.” Bicycles were often re-painted to appear new, or dolls given new clothes. Stockings contained small pieces of candy, nuts, or raisins, special treats not normally on the menu. The most treasured of these delicacies was an orange, the sweet fruit being too expensive to purchase at other times of the year due to its long journey from Florida in an era before interstates and refrigerated trucks.

Christmas dinner was modest by today’s standards but still considered a feast. Chicken or turkey was the staple, if the birds could be found and/or afforded, and was rounded out by vegetables from the garden, like potatoes or cabbage. Many families also managed to scrape together a pie for dessert.

Despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, Christmas was still a time for joy and celebration. Families gathered together to eat and open gifts, usually attending a church service in the morning or evening. There were still carolers and acts of charity, Christmas parades and tales woven around the fire about old Saint Nick and his reindeer. In fact, many Christmas traditions still in practice today were started during the “scant” holidays of the 1930’s.

In 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom created the “Coca-Cola Santa,” an image that shaped our modern version of the jolly old elf. 1933 brought with it the premiere of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes. “Winter Wonderland” was written and released in 1934, while 1939 saw the first appearance of Rudolph, his red-nose shining out from a storybook given away as a promotional item for the Montgomery Ward Department Stores.

The most telling thing to emerge during the Depression, however, was the tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. During this time of forced austerity and overwhelming want, it was a way to focus instead on the true meaning of Christmas: the blessing of giving over receiving and of gratitude for gifts, no matter how big or small.

And, at least in this respect, perhaps the Christmases of the Great Depression, weren’t destitute at all but instead a testament to the human spirit and a reminder that the greatest gift we’ve ever received is not of this earth.


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