During the Great Depression, two young families, the Martins and the Zimmers, barely managed to scrape together the 40 cents necessary to purchase a Christmas tree. Each couple contributed 20 cents.
Housing was scarce and , and they considered themselves lucky to have found a warm and comfortable place to spend Christmas with their young children.
At that time, large houses often were divided up and rooms rented to several families. The Martins (my grandparents) and the Zimmers had rented two adjoining rooms in the same house. The only thing separating the two small rooms was a closed door. The communal door was propped open and the small, scraggly tree was erected in the doorway, with one half of the tree extending into each apartment. Each family decorated its own half. Decorations were mostly hand-made out of whatever was available. There was little money set aside for gifts to place under the tree for their children.
Those who grew up during those difficult years understood self-sacrifice and financial hardship meant never knowing where your next dollar might come from, whether you had enough food for your family, and possibly losing your home because you could not come up with the rent. It might mean nothing under the tree for your children.
The men in both those households had plenty of time on their hands. Jobs were scarce or nonexistent. They spent weeks in the shared garage making doll furniture from scrap lumber. My grandfather sold newspaper subscriptions until he had earned enough to buy my mother a small doll. My grandmother sewed doll clothes and a tiny quilt, using scraps from clothes which were threadbare or no longer fit.
Although my mom was just a toddler at the time, she still remembered decades later the mysterious sounds of sawing, sanding, hammering, and laughter coming from the garage, as well as the feeling of excited anticipation radiating through the rooms. Mom remembers that as her favorite Christmas, although it was surely the hardest for the family.
By the time my mother had married and left her childhood home, this country’s financial condition had not gotten much better. She and my dad’s first Christmas as newlyweds found them living in a converted chicken coop in someone’s back yard, where they shared an outhouse with three other families.
“We were happy to get it,” said Mom. “It was fixed it up really cute.”
Christmas in Mom and Dad’s chicken coop home included few gifts and decorations, but was full of love and hope.
As their situation improved over the next few years, they were able to rent several rooms in a private home. They still shared a bathroom, but at least it was indoors.
They had no refrigerator, so they shared the one downstairs with two other families. They decided to gift each other a real indulgence this Christmas: their very own refrigerator. Each week they put their pennies in a quart jar until they finally had enough for a down-payment on a refrigerator. Even when Mom was in her 80s, she still remembered that a quart jar holds exactly 27 dollars worth of pennies.
Because they had no credit, they were told by the appliance salesman that, in addition to the down-payment, they would need a cosigner. Too proud to ask for help from their parents, they decided to do without the refrigerator.
Through hard work and determination, Mom and Dad eventually were able to raise five children in a brick ranch in the suburbs.
The Martins and the Zimmers remained in touch over the years. More than 30 years later, both Mr. Martin and Mrs. Zimmer passed away. Their surviving spouses came to realize how much their long friendship and their shared past meant to them. They married and spent a good many Christmases together as husband and wife.
A joyful Christmas is not about the gifts under the tree or the wealth you have accumulated. It’s about loving people and the cherished memories you share.