Monday, January 5, 2009

Day 56/365 One Last Look at Christmas..or...Cigarettes Are Good For Something

This was my mother's Christmas tree this year. It's the top of a cedar tree, with a handmade wooden board for a stand. Usually my folks cut a full size cedar from some corner of the farm,
and decorate it with white lights.

This year Mom decided to make a Christmas tree like she had as a child, growing up in an isolated part of the Appalachian mountains. My grandparents started their marriage in 1917 as sharecroppers (and occasional ridge runners). They moved from place to place depending on who had money to hire Grandad to pull in a crop, plus a house to shelter his wife and six kids.

Those houses were generally one step away from falling down, with newspaper insulation over the inside of the clapboard, woodstoves or fireplaces for heat and light, and plank flooring. This was the Appalachia of the 1930s. For reference, my grandmother got one electric lightbulb in 1946, and indoor plumbing when I was 15 (1970).

For a sharecropper in the 1930s and 1940s, Christmas was a low-scale affair. There was little money for food, or shoes (the kids got one pair a year, and were expected to kick them off when they got home from school to save wear. They did their chores, winter and summer, barefoot.)

So all year long, Granddad gave his empty cigarette packs to the kids. They carefully took out the liner foil, and pressed it flat, putting it away until the following December. In November they gathered round furry sycamore seeds and laid them out to dry.

Grandad would go out on Thanksgiving and cut a cedar tree, then nail it to a wooden plank for a stand. The kids would take the saved up cigarette foil, and wrap the sycamore balls with it, making ornaments for the Christmas tree. Extra foil was cut in skinny strands to make "icicles", while a cardboard star was covered with foil for a treetopper.

Each child placed a shoebox under the tree for Santa to fill. The ultimate Christmas present was an orange, maybe a candy cane if it had been a good year, and rarely, if it was a very good year, one small toy.

I hadn't heard my mother's Christmas memory before this year, but it reminded me that my own early Christmas' at my grandparents home weren't that much different. Instead of shoeboxes, the grandkids all had stockings, but they were still filled with oranges, and since my grandparents had moved up a bit in the world (now able to afford indoor plumbing and have electricity wired throughout the house) they could also afford to put mixed nuts in the stockings.
It never occurred to me that they were poor - I just thought it was a family tradition -the oranges and the nuts. To this day I can't eat either without thinking of my grandparents.


  1. Carole, What a great memory! I remember my grandmother's house down in NC. She owned the land - inherited it from her mom, but had the same type house with something over the clapboard. I don't remember what. I think there was electricity by the time I could remember and sometime in the 1970's my dad put a bathroom in. Before that it was the outhouse or the chamber pot.

    I can see the kitchen now. It was the nerve center. We would go down in March or April and it would still get chilly there. She had a little pot belly stove with a cast iron tea kettle on it. The cupboards under the counter top were covered by feedsack cloth. And the pie safe. Oh my! I can't remember much about pies coming out of it, but that's where the extra's from breakfast were stashed. Country ham and buttermilk biscuits. If I close my eyes when I'm at an antique store with an old pie safe, I can smell her kitchen when I open the door.

    Thanks for the memory. She's been gone 23 1/2 years, but I can still see sand gathered in the corners and her sitting at the table.

  2. Betty -
    You'd be able to find your way around my grandma's kitchen! Her pie safe is sitting in my diningroom now and it still smells like ham (after at least 23 years).

    We always hurried downstairs on the chilly mornings because her woodstove was the only heat in the house!

    Glad you enjoyed the story and found your memories.

  3. It's an awesome memory and so wonderful that you wrote it down to share with others. My grandmother didn't have indoor plumbing until the late 70s and she still uses cistern water for water into her home. My dad tells me that they would get a 1 lb chocolate bar for Christmast and it would be split between the 7 children! He also got a shirt and maybe shoes and maybe a toy for Christmas. I'll have to ask what they did about a tree. I don't have any idea.