Christmas during the Great Depression
by John C. Westervelt
In the 1920s, people wore fine clothes and drove fancy cars. As newlyweds in that period, my dad and mother were living in Oklahoma City where my dad had a good job selling road machinery. My older brother Wallace, my younger sister Harriette, and I were born a year apart. Harriette arrived in January 1929 before the stock market crashed in October. The Great Depression of the 1930s followed. Sales of road machinery came to a halt. Many were out of work, and those who had a job didn’t have much money. As a child, I assumed this was the way it was supposed to be.
One year, Wallace and I saved our money for Christmas to surprise our mother. In mid-December with a quarter each, we walked to the Christmas tree lot. The six-foot trees were marked a dollar. I asked the man, “What can we buy for two quarters?”
The proprietor said, “Pick one you like and we’ll see.” We picked a medium size tree. The man said, “Give me both quarters and the tree is yours.”
With Wallace holding the trunk and me holding an upper branch, we proudly walked the several blocks home. Using scrap lumber, we made a cross with pads on the ends of one board so the cross was level when sitting on the garage floor. We hammered a large nail through the cross and into the trunk of the tree. Next, we carried our prize into the living room, set the tree in front of the window that faced the street, and called out to Mother.
When she came to see what we had, she was pleased. Mother never cried, but I suspect her eyes were damp that day. Mother called Harriette; and the two of them got the box of lights and ornaments from the closet shelf.
The lights were laid on the floor and plugged into the socket. When they didn’t glow, we tested each socket with a new bulb. With the lights working and placed on the tree, Mother gave each child an ornament and a hook. This continued until all the ornaments were in place. Finally, each child got a handful of silver icicles to hang on each of the branches. I have never been more proud of a Christmas tree.
I looked forward to Christmas morning. From a year earlier, I expected one gift from Mother and Daddy. Mother’s brothers and sisters with no children sent a package with a gift for each child. I remember the proud feeling of holding my dollar pocket watch, a gift from Uncle Charles.
In preparation for Christmas, Mother attached the pecan cracker to the kitchen table. Wallace and I showed our muscle by pulling the metal handle to crack the native pecans. By the time we finished, the kitchen floor was covered with pieces of pecan shells. A straw broom was used for cleanup.
Mother learned from her mother how to make Christmas candy and cookies. I remember well the taste of divinity, fudge, and Aunt Bill’s candy, all with pecans. Aunt Bill’s began with copious amounts of sugar in an iron skillet where the sugar was stirred over a low flame with a spoon until the sugar caramelized.
Each child asked Mother to make his or her favorite cookie. You can be sure a child’s hand was in the cookie dough. For one cookie, the dough was pressed by hand all across the cookie pan. The dough was covered with well beaten eggs, brown sugar, and chopped nuts, then baked.
For another cookie, a quarter-size ball was formed by rolling the dough between two small hands. The ball was put on the cookie sheet, and a hole was punched with a child’s finger. Enough jelly to cover the end of a tea-spoon was pushed into the hole before placing a pecan half on top. The hot oven did the rest.
The Great Depression lasted ten years. This likely weighed heavily on Daddy and Mother. As a child, I had no such concerns. Happiness and joy overflowed my heart each year at Christmas.
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