Christmas Gifts in the Great Depression

Original Airdates: December 21, 22, 23 (2010)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

For most families during the Great Depression, Christmas was not a time for extravagance. Money and jobs were difficult to come by, and it was all some families could do to keep food on the table.

Retired Baylor physics professor Robert Packard remembers how hard times called for creativity. He describes a plan he came up with while visiting his cousins in the Temple area one Christmas during the Great Depression. Children looking forward to Santa's visit this year should not listen to the following:

"They lived in the country. And so Christmas, when it came, we got no presents. We might get a bag of—an apple or something. So I told my cousin, I said, 'Why don't we kidnap Santa Claus? He's got all these gifts, and he bypasses us, but he brings us something.' So we went to bed on Christmas Eve early. The bedroom I was in—and I was the only boy, and my sister and then my cousins were girls. So they had a room, and I had a small room. So anyway, we climbed out the window—out in the country—with a rope that we were going to tie up Santa Claus. (laughter) But we were standing there in the cold and waiting and waiting and waiting and probably shivering, and then we happened to look in the window and see our parents taking toys off the top shelf. So suddenly we realized there was no Santa Claus, but we knew we now could direct our interest directly to the parents."

Ruth and Charles Armstrong, both longtime Waco residents, remember the gifts they received as youngsters during the Depression:

"Now sometimes I would get a doll—not a real, real expensive doll but nice dolls, you know—and socks, a little iron, just typical little things that little girls would like."

"I was more fortunate, I guess. I don't know of a Christmas that I didn't get at least one large—what I call a large gift would be a full-size wagon. And I've got a picture there on my new bicycle, and I've got another picture where I was in a little old car you sit in there and pedal it, you know. But I had two older brothers that worked and my daddy, too—I was the youngest one for several years there—so I got a few extra things that some of the other kids didn't get. But as far as times, our times were just as—got rough, too. We had a hard time, too. But seem like on Christmas I came out ahead in the neighborhood."

Mr. Armstrong describes the tradition of hanging a stocking:

"Everybody hung their socks up. We didn't have a fireplace, but we'd hang them up wherever it was convenient, you know, around close to the tree after we started having a tree because we'd still put gifts under the tree. But before we had a tree we'd hang up near the stove, and the bigger the sock the better. I'd get the biggest sock I could find, hang up there, and you could always count on fireworks. There was always some firecrackers in there, always apples and oranges in there."

As hard as times were during the Great Depression, families with some type of income still managed to make sure the children had gifts at Christmas. With the current economy and ever-increasing commercialization of Christmas, it's helpful to look back and realize that children do not need heaps of presents to grow up with wonderful memories of Christmas.

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