American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
Interview from the the Living Lore section.
Interview with Alan Wallace in 1938, about Christmas as a child in the 1880s.
"Yep, that's what my mother always said, You see, when she was a kid - she was born - oh, I guess about 1858, I'm not sure just when exactly but along there somewhere, her family made practically all their gifts. The Civil War came & they couldn't afford to spend money on anything but food. The habit stuck to her & so, when my brothers & I came along she taught us to do many things that ever since makes Christmas to me.
"Well, we boys, used to gather things to make fancy pillows, we'd start as early as August so when Mother was ready to use them they were dry & fragrant, things like fir tips, pine needles & sweet fern leaves.
"It usually went to the seashore for two weeks every summer & half the fun of going was the finding of shells to take home to make into Christmas presents. We'd pick up the prettiest clam shells & scallop shells, a whole basket full, & then when we got back home, we'd paint them in the evenings - make ash trays, pin trays & - & - oh, yes, paper weights & sometimes door stops.
"As I look back on it now I realize that some of them were pretty awful but Mother always seemed delighted with our efforts, no matter how feeble they proved to be. Honestly we got so we could all paint fairly well - you know, birds & butterflies & flowers.
"We had scads of relatives & by the time we had painted something for everybody we should have been fairly proficent. We used to make canes for Father & there was, of course, always a great deal of rivalry among us as to which cane he would like the best, so, to spare our feelings, he would carry mine today, Stuarts', my oldest brother, the next day & Jim's, the youngest brother, the third day & he would be equally enthuiastic about each one.
"We always gave him something for his desk. He finally accumulated so many of our gifts he put a good-sized table in his room & all of our efforts were laid out to show them to the best advantage. I don't mind telling you we were mighty proud of that collection.
"Mother taught us each to knit & I realize as I look back how patient she was for we were so clumsy - but we got so we could knit wristlets that really looked all right.
"I remember one night Mother had the dining room table strewn with clothes pins & some paint cans & brushes. She was making dolls out of the pins. She put dresses on them & she painted the end where the little knob is - that was the head, you know. We were wild to try our hand on painting the faces & she finally let us - we thought we had done pretty well but we were very crestfallen when Mother remarked that it was most evident there were no portrait painters in her family.
"We all three learned to crochet - & we had more fun than you can imagine crocheting ribbons to tie around our packages.
"The evenings would fly by all too fist & how sensible my Mother was keeping three big boys so enthused over Christmas that they rarely wanted to go out at night. We were boys, too, real tough 'he' boys, & the funniest part of the whole thing was, none of the boys in the neighborhood ever kidded us. In facts most of them spent half their time at our house.
"Mother always caught the Christmas spirit early & she used to spread it around which made our Christmas last longer than most people. So many don't commence to think anything about it until two or three days before Christmas Eve.
"We used to cut our trees out in some nearby pasture & was that a ceremony. Sometimes we would spend weeks making the proper selection & there were many serious arguments before we were all satisfied. We would be all ready to set it up a week or ten days before Christmas.
"We decorated it with strings of cranberries & pop corn, then we'd paint silver stars & tuck them in & out of the branches. We put a few little candles, here & there. Not many, Mother had a deadly fear of fire. Everybody had a stocking hung on the tree, even our animals.
"We had our gifts Christmas morning but Christmas Eve we always had a 'taffy pulling'. All our pals were invited, no one was allowed to bring a present. A number of the older people would come, too, & sometimes bring something for Mother & Dad We didn't call him Dad in those days, it would have been considered disrespectful...
"We had our gifts early in the morning & then we'd pitch in & help with the last minute preparations for dinner & what a dinner it would be. The table fairly groaned as the newspapers say.
"And no one seemed to hurry - no one rushing & dashing around like mad as they do today. Everybody was smiling. To Father & Mother Christmas meant love & love means happiness - doesn't it?"