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Stories of Christmas Past

by Sharon Simpson

Outside, the snow is falling. The trees are covered in a beautiful layer of glistening white. The log stove is keeping the room warm and the family is gathered together. The horses are in their stalls. The sleigh bells are silenced for the night. Peace. Calm. Love.

“We’re sorry to tell you, this, children,” mother says in her native tongue, “but, there will be no Christmas presents this year.” It was a fact. It wasn’t sad. It was just how it would be. The next morning, we went out on the homestead and cut down a beautiful Christmas tree that we brought back to our log cabin. Dad was trying to clear the land to farm, so it helped to take down one more tree that year. The year? 1931.

On Christmas morning, we woke to each find a plate under the tree for us. On that plate were some candies and a mandarin orange. We delighted to find something for us that year.”

Another senior tells of how his father lost his job as a cabinet maker in 1929. It wasn’t until 10 years later, when his father joined the army at the start of World War 11 that their family had a steady income. They lived almost 10 years on “relief”, the name for social assistance at that time.

“It was hard. We didn’t have Christmas. We knew it was Christmas because there were advertisements in the newspaper and the stores. For us, there wasn’t anything under the tree. That was how it was for most of the years of my childhood.”

“Christmas is a difficult time for me,” says another senior, “It was Boxing Day when I was five years old that the Nazi’s took my father away. I never saw him again.” The year? 1941.

“Dad had hidden two Jewish rabbis under our floorboards in the Netherlands. The Germans came to our door and found them. One of the rabbis turned my father in. They came to get my father at church. He wrote us letters, but they were all censored with blue ink. The last letter we received from my father was from Kiev. They took him to Russia.”

“We didn’t have gifts at Christmas. Not much, anyway. We got some things we needed on December 5th, but not much on Christmas Day. I can’t even remember if there was anything. We left a carrot for St. Nick’s horse, we went to church, we had the Sunday School play and we read the Christmas story together.”

Another senior tells us, “We didn’t have much. No one did. Things were sparse. I can’t remember a special Christmas present (laughs). We didn’t get presents! Well, we got the things we needed – some clothing, some knits…. things like that. What made it worse is that my dad took off on my mom. She was a single mom trying to keep us going. We didn’t have any money. It was the 30’s. Everyone’s life was tough, but ours was even harder.”

Seniors in their 80’s and 90’s understand what it means to be poor at Christmas time. They know what it is like to have nothing under the Christmas tree. They know what it is like to treasure the memories of family, turkey and Christmas pudding, for they had none of the extras that are so abundant today.

What was it like for you when you had your own family Christmas, with your own kids?

“I always thought the best part was the food, so we always had a huge Christmas dinner that took all day to make… turkey, stuffing, Christmas cake. That was a big part of how I celebrated Christmas with my children.”

“When I was twenty, I worked in the camps in the Kootenays. I couldn’t go home to Saskatchewan for Christmas, so I celebrated that year in the logging camp. The others were drinking on Christmas Eve and that was new to me. We had never had alcohol in our home or community. On Christmas Day, everyone was hung over. I was so lonely. I know I was a young adult, but I really missed my mom that day. It makes me cry when I think about how much I missed her. It was the longest Christmas Day of my life. From that year on, we always celebrated Christmas with family.”

“We gave our kids one gift that they wished for. We tried to not give them everything that they wanted. We read the Christmas story together – from Genesis to Jesus’ birth to His crucifixion to the day of Jesus’ return. It was important to my wife and I that our children would know what Christmas is all about.”

“It wasn’t like it is today. Even in the 50’s and 60’s, we didn’t have a lot of money. The kids would get one gift. The rest of their presents were things they needed, like socks and underwear and toothbrushes.”

“Children are what makes Christmas so special. It’s a privilege to have them around and to teach them about what Christmas is all about. That’s the hard part about being so old. There aren’t many children around us now. Not the same way.”

What is the best gift you ever received?

“Well, I’d have to say an accordion! My wife surprised me. Yes, I knew how to play it. The kids tied wool around it and then strung it all through the house. I had to follow the string to find it in its hiding place. (His eyes tear up). The hardest part of growing old? You can’t bring back the spirit of it all that you enjoyed in those days. Most everyone is gone now. I’ll go one day, soon, too. That will be a good day for me.”

“I can’t think of a thing. The best part of Christmas? That’s an easy answer – being with the people I love and eating all that delicious food!”

“Knowing that my children and my grandchildren love the Lord. You can’t wrap it up in a gift box. All you can do is pray for them and thank God that they follow in His love and forgiveness.”

What advice do you have for young parents who are celebrating Christmas with their family this year?

“Hmmm… I don’t know. It’s all so different. There is so much retail and shopping. I think it’s hard to keep the focus on the meaning of Christmas and Jesus’ birth. I’d say pray for your children. Each generation will have its own challenges. My childhood was really tough. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and yet, I think that this generation has some challenges, too.”

“Advice? I wouldn’t know where to start. I don’t know what it’s like to try and raise children in this kind of a world. I don’t know if I could do it. Read the Christmas story. From the time that they are very small, read it to them. They need to know what Christmas is really all about.”

“Focus on the Lord. Find ways to take the focus off of material things. Find ways to take the money out of it. Love each other. Be together as much as you can during Christmas. This is the most important gift that you can give to each other.”

As I spoke to the seniors, they shared their memories of Christmas past. Each one shared the lack of “things” at Christmas time. They weren’t disappointed because not much was expected. They got about the same amount as the other kids their age… nearly nothing.

Each one’s childhood was touched by World War II. Family members serving. German invasion of the Netherlands. Economic hardship after Wall Street crashed in 1929. Financial security through serving in the war or becoming a veteran. It was a dark time on this planet.

And in the darkness, there was a light. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. No one who follows me stumbles around in darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in.” (John 8:12)

And so… across the generations, the traditions, the challenges and the years… we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place

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