I was born on the last day of 1933. The first Christmas I remember was getting up and being told that Santa had come but we had to eat our breakfast before we could go into the living room to see our presents. Looking back, I believe this was more about Mother wanting her coffee than concern about our nutrition.
Later, walking into the room, all I saw was about half the room’s furniture covered with white bed sheets. Guess Santa stopped off at Mother’s linen closet because I recognized some of her pretty linens. When we were small and still believed in Santa, my folks did not wrap those presents. There would be a filled stocking kind of propped up among the doll and toys. I’m sure I do not remember each Christmas but those that I do, I relate to the doll I got that year. Several of those dolls are upstairs in a tall glass case along with Dee’s mostly Madame Alexander dolls. [When I was still buying dolls for Dee, I thought the Madame Alexanders were by far the best.] For some reason, I always insisted that my dad look at every single little present and he was exceedingly patient.
A Christmas tree is, and has always been, a thing of great beauty to me. If my family would stand for it, I’d keep one up all year. Mother believed in our making decorations so we had construction paper chains and other odd and assorted little objects. She did have to buy new tinsel most every year though because brothers and boy cousins loved to wad up the tinfoil tinsel and throw it into the tree. Of course it did not in any way look like icicles but more like shiny rocks and stones hanging crazily on tree limbs. After I got old enough to notice other folks’ trees, and realized how pretty they could be, I staged a major, for me, rebellion. The upshot was like so much else in life , if I didn’t like the way they decorated, I was welcome to do it by myself………. So, at about six years old I became a tinsel hanger! Mother and I were the only “girls” and she had her hands full with everything else she did.
Times were awfully hard in the thirties and modern equipment such as we take for granted just didn’t exist. Mother’s family had been quite well off. They had lots of servants, a governess, a school teacher etc. but they all had to pitch in and help with that huge family [12 kids]. In our little family, Mother did it all except the big laundry. She and Dad loved Christmas though and made it a happy time for us. We did not have cute, decorated felt stockings. Apparently, Mother saved her stockings for us. They were much bigger plus being stretchy. They held lots more plus larger objects. Only trouble was that we got lots of fruit in our stockings plus un-shelled pecans.
Mother’s brother Dan married a lady whose family owned orange groves, near Largo, Florida. At that time, they had three kids and they most often spent Christmas with us. When they arrived, they came in with crates of oranges and other citrus fruits. Often, the oranges were their natural color, much paler than store bought. After dinner, at night, my dad would sit at the dining room table and peel oranges and grapefruit for everyone. He always cut off each end, then scored the fruit from top to bottom in about six places, then just sort of lifted off the peel.
Mother and Dad loved coconut cake. She always made one or two , using the old 1,2,3,4 cake recipe with cooked, 7 minute white icing. [See the end of this post for the cake recipe.] She added the coconut to the icing, then sprinkled more on the top. These were tall three layer cakes, perhaps 6-8 inches tall. Of course, Dad spent half a day opening and grating the fresh coconut, a really tedious job. He also loved fresh black walnut cake, made the same way except substituting the walnuts for the coconut. I well remember Dad out back with a hammer, opening walnuts, eating a few as he went along. Mother always made a lemon cheese cake, with something kind of like lemon curd as the filling, then seven minute icing on the top and sides. Sometimes, there would be a pound cake, fruit cake or Devils Food. In later years, when my parents visited me for Christmas, I made the cake layers and icing but insisted that Mother put them together. She enjoyed that but I didn’t.
As a child, I always thought our house was just beautiful after Mother decorated. She’d take out the decorations and there were always red, tissue paper bells, large and larger. They stayed folded flat but opened into bells that had to be clipped with a gym clip. Two or three of these with ribbon and fresh pine cuttings would be placed around the house. She dipped pine cones in various paints and used magnolia leaves plus other natural objects. Wish I could remember all of them.
We always had fresh trees, usually pines. In later years, our family made a trip to the huge, Farmers Market, south of Atlanta, to buy our tree. We would drive up and down the rows looking, trying to decide who was selling the best trees.
Christmas during the war years was different. We lived on the farm, away from Atlanta. In many ways it was better for us than for other people because we had chickens, eggs, cows, butter, etc. so there was plenty to eat. So food rationing didn’t affect us. We had to get gas, shoes, and tires with ration books, though. Vanilla flavoring was hard to get, as was pineapple, and canned asparagus. We didn’t get our usual fruit from Uncle Dan. Sugar was rationed but Mother made do. In the newspaper there would be columns about how to make cakes without much sugar. Everyone shared tips on how to get by without things like sugar or eggs. We made fewer Christmas cakes. We had plenty of chickens and turkeys on the farm. We certainly ate well.
Mother sewed all the time. She sent aprons, clothes, potholders, placemats, etc. for everyone in her family for Christmas. She sewed beautifully. She mostly used feed sacks. Back then they were beautiful, with prints, some of them. The white ones were bleached. I think they were heavy cotton. The manufacturers of the chicken feed, for instance, sent the feed in sacks, so that was a source of cloth. We still have a couple of feed sack aprons. They have lasted many years.
Of course, my mother’s family consisted of 12 siblings, and there was Granny Butler. Grandaddy Butler died when I was small. Granny proceeded to live with her children for the rest of her life.
At Christmas, Granny Butler sat around like the Queen of Sheba and everyone bowed and scraped. She would have 40-50 presents to open. She was a real matriarch. Granny took no crap from anybody, but she was very much a lady.
When I was a child, Christmas was always a happy time. I always loved seeing the presents, but I loved seeing the family, particularly my cousins and my grandmother.
1,2,3,4 Cake [Mrs. Dull**]
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1 scant cup milk or water
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
Cream butter, sugar until fluffy; add eggs one at a time. Start alternating flour and liquid; sift powders with flour, add alternately with liquid. Add vanilla. Bake at 375 degrees for about 35-40 minutes if you’re making layers.
** Mrs. Dull was an Atlanta institution. You can read more about her here.