Image by Rodney Campbell on flickr
Letty Owings, age 88, recalls how a rural German Evangelical farming community in Missouri observed Christmas during the Great Depression.
And All Through the House
In the 1930s I lived in the rural Missouri countryside in a farming community of Evangelical Germans. The community was small and the people came over to this country quite a long time ago in the 19th century, but they hung onto their language and traditions. We spoke low German in the home, and there was a strict division of work, between the men and the women. This is how we observed Christmas.
The cutting of the tree was my mother’s task, but I went with her. We picked a scrub cedar in the woods, and my mother would get the ax on Christmas Eve, and cut the tree. The snow was deep on that day. The tree fit on top of the dining room table. We decorated the tree with the same decorations year after year that my mother saved in a closet: bells, icicles and tinsel. The tinsel was always a bit tarnished because it was metal. The decorations came from before I was born, and there was a star for the top of the tree.
My mother used the same cloth on the table each year, and she set the table with the same bluebird dinner plates. She and my dad put something on the plate, usually a few pieces of hard candy from the church, maybe a few nuts. Gifts were placed on top of the plates. Nothing was wrapped.
We burned wood in the stove. We had two wood stoves. Even though coal was cheap and plentiful, we didn’t use it for heating. Mom wouldn’t burn coal because it was dirty. Since coal burned hotter, they used it in the church and the school, so you saw the coal dust in those places. People kept talking about how the REA (Rural Electrification Administration) was going to come to us with electricity but they never did. It’s just as well because as it was we were blowing our lamps out early to preserve coal oil for the lamps, so you can imagine nobody had enough money to pay for electricity.
Impulse did not figure into our lives, things were the way they were. There were gradations of poverty with some better and some worse, but we never saw things in comparison, because we had nothing to compare ourselves to. We didn’t have money to subscribe to a newspaper, for example, but we were careful to save the occasional issue of Arthur Capper’s newspaper that made its way into the house, because we could stuff it around the cracks of the doors and windows, and it made lovely insulation.
On Christmas morning my dad got up very early and milked the cow, fed the animals, and put hay in the manger. Then, he came in and started the fire in the kitchen and made cornbread. When he and my mother had put the gifts on the plates and the cornbread was ready, he would call. We raced downstairs. There were three kids, and my parents carefully hid things ahead of time. They pretended not to know what the gifts were, even though they did, and they always showed great anticipation and excitement. We prayed, ate, and talked. On this particular year my sister got a scarf, my brother got socks (the men always got socks), and I got a doll. Her name was Pearly, and since my mom wouldn’t let me take her to the hay loft, I rocked her all day, inside. I still have Pearly, to this day.
On Christmas night, we went to church. The church had a Christmas program. We sang songs in English- Silent Night, and Joy to the World- and we got a sack of candy to take home. The men sat on one side, and the women on the other, although when I was little I sat with my dad on the mens’ side. The women covered their heads. My mother made our clothes out of feed sacks on a treadle sewing machine; she had a dress for church and my dad wore overalls.
The Germans celebrated a second Christmas day on the 26th. That was also a holiday. We lived three miles to the nearest kin by road, but the walk through the field was a mile. My uncle and aunt had three little boys, and on this day Uncle Jake took to the snowy field and made his way to our house. He brought me a Christmas present, wrapped in paper, from the three boys. The gift was a nickel. That may sound silly today, but it was a great sacrifice for them.
Also, from Rome this morning: