Oneida’s Flonnie Webb Stephens, who will turn 105 in just a few weeks, pens a remembrance of Christmases long past in this week’s edition of the Independent Herald (page A6). Upon reading what she had to say about Christmases past, I was immediately reminded of what my grandmother wrote in her memoir — “Sunshine In The Shadows” — about Christmases from her own childhood.
Mrs. Stephens writes, “Our parents somehow managed to find the money to provide us with special things to eat. They would take eggs to town to sell so they could buy us coconuts, peppermint candy logs, and oranges. Peppermint stick logs were the greatest treats. To us, these candy sticks were what Christmas eating was all about!”
She adds, “We never thought that we were having a bad Christmas, as people around us were also poor. We had our parents there to love us.”
In her memoir, my grandmother, Onlee Wright Garrett, similarly wrote that Christmas was a time when she and her siblings looked forward to candy and fresh fruit.
“Candy was really a treat for us, because we never got candy or any kind of sweets except at Christmas or on special occasions,” she wrote.
“Daddy was usually out of work around Christmas time, and couldn’t afford to get us very much other than candy or fruit,” she continued. “Our parents did the best they could, and I’m sure they would have liked to have gotten us something every year, but just keeping us in food and clothing was hard to do, with that many children. Nearly everyone we knew were poor people and worked hard just to keep food on the table for their families.”
My grandmother and Mrs. Stephens grew up more than 20 years apart. But their childhoods were similar in that they grew up in rural Scott County at a time when rural Scott County was very poor — even by today’s standards. We think we have it rough now, with high unemployment and an unstable economy, but we live like kings compared to how our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived here. Most of us are able to spend far more money on our children in a single Christmas season than our grandparents received in an entire childhood of Christmases.
These stories from Flonnie Stephens and Onlee Garrett aren’t isolated recounts of early 20th Century Christmases in Scott County. Many of our community’s seniors tell similar stories about Christmases from their youth.
Today, we’re so caught up in the hustle-and-bustle of Christmas that we often overlook what should be the most cherished ritual of the season: time spent with “kith and kin.” We’re so spoiled by the excesses we’ve been blessed with that if the only things we could provide our children on Christmas Day was a little fresh fruit and candy and dinner with the family, we would consider ourselves failures in the eyes of our kids.
And, yet, “experts” tell us that stress levels among the average American are higher at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Many of us complain that we can’t get into the Christmas spirit because we’re too busy — ironically, too busy trying to finish preparations for Christmas — or because of other circumstances in our daily lives, even because the weather is too warm.
I’m not someone who ordinarily complains about the commercialization of Christmas. Like most parents, I’ll go out of my way this season to make my children’s Christmas wishes come true. As long as God blesses us with the financial means, what better time to extend a little extra of those blessings to our children and others who play important roles in our lives?
But when you read these accounts of old Christmases, you realize that the spirit of Christmas isn’t tied to gifts or anything else that is physical. The spirit of Christmas is a state of mind.
As my grandmother wrote, “Material things don’t make people happy. Love and contentment are what bring happiness. We didn’t know any different life, so we never missed what we didn’t have. In fact, we thought we had it all, and we did have the most important things in life.”
■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.