I’ve been thinking about the celebration of Christmas in America over the past 80 years or so. Specifically Santa Claus, and the toys he made and delivered. The contents of Santa’s sleigh have changed quite a bit since my father was a boy.
This post has nothing to do with the actual celebration of Christ’s birth, which, as a Roman Catholic, I put first and foremost. This post is a sort of remembrance of my family, centered around Christmas gifts, toys and Santa Claus.
Christmas in the 1930s
If my father, (above, front row right) born in 1931, had been part of a family that received toys for Christmas, I suspect he would have enjoyed a truck like the one above. But my dad and his brothers and sisters usually hung their stockings and woke up to find them filled with oranges, nuts and other treats, and perhaps a hat or a pair of gloves, or another needed item of clothing. I’m pretty sure they didn’t get toys, at least not during the Depression. And according to my father, his brother (back row, far left) actually got nothing but coal in his stocking one year, because he wasn’t a good boy.
My father was the son of Italian immigrants. He was born and raised on a mushroom farm in Chester County Pennsylvania, near Kennett Square, known as the Mushroom Capitol of the World. The family worked hard, and didn’t have a lot of extra cash back then. My father did all kinds of chores, like cleaning the chicken house, feeding the pigs, working in the garden and helping in the house. When older, he worked in the mushroom houses, sometimes skipping school to stay at home and work.
But the lack of store-bought toys didn’t bother him. He made his own toys. My dad, in his spare time, fashioned playthings for himself. He built wagons and cars to ride on and smaller cars to play with, using discarded wood and wheels from the dump or perhaps from farm equipment no longer in use.
My aunt Annie, (front row left, dressed in her 1st Communion dress & veil) loves to tell a story about my father, who was about 2 years older than she was. My MomMom was looking for my father, whose name was Dante. The family called him Dondi. MomMom was walking around the house, yelling: “Where’s Dondi?” My aunt said a voice was heard coming from the cellar, saying, “I’m down here. Can’t you hear the tippety-tap?”
My aunt and my mother think this is an adorable story, and how cute of little Dondi, who was referring to the hammering sound he was making while building a toy. I think it’s kind of funny. Knowing my father, he was probably actually saying: “I’m down here. Can’t you hear?”
There are other depression era mushroom farm tales. One of the funnier ones was related by my Aunt Mary (back row, far right). Mary was 7 or 8 years older than my father. She mentioned that when the younger children were little, sometimes the kitchen was a chaotic place. One day my MomMom was cooking dinner for her family and their boarder. My grandparents kept a boarder back then, to help with expenses. According to my father, the boarder’s name was Chisel. I have no idea if that was his first name, last name, or nickname. All I know is that my father, when speaking of his childhood, mentioned their boarder as “Chisel.”
Anyway, to make a long story short, Mary and MomMom were cooking, and the three younger kids were hanging around underfoot. Little Dondi was by the window, playing with his slingshot. Later at the dinner table, a terrible thing happened. Poor Chisel spooned up cabbage, made a terrible face, and reached up to pull a rubber band out of his mouth.
Little Dondi’s toy making skills hadn’t yet been perfected, and the rubber band from the slingshot ended up in the cabbage pot while my MomMom’s back was turned.
My father and his siblings attended Catholic school through eighth grade. My Aunt Gloria, front and center in the above photo, became a high school friend of my mother. My parents met in high school, through Gloria.
Christmas in the late 1930s – early 1940s.
My mother was born in 1935. She tells us that Santa Claus always bought each of the 4 children in her family a toy for Christmas. I only know of one photo of my my mother as a baby, and I don’t have access to it now, but most of the same applied to her family as my father’s. One toy a year was pretty much it, along with clothes, etc. My mother told us she got a doll one year, or maybe dolls on multiple years. The doll was probably similar to this one.
There are plenty of stories from Mom’s family, too. What stands out in particular is the fact that my mother and her sister, Betty, did a lot of housework. They helped my Granny, who worked hard in the home while her husband worked at his job. I have a story of my mother’s childhood that was cut from my book, The Notice, because the book was becoming too long. I may write it as a short story at some point.
Christmas in the 1960s.
I was born in 1961. I don’t know much about kids in the 50s, so I’ll just skip that decade. When my sister and I were little, Santa Claus was good to us. We always got a doll, and other toys, too.
I remember Santa Claus leaving a doll similar to this one. He also came to our home and left worst toy ever made, this Yogi bear ride on toy.
This toy was the worst. I barely remember Yogi. I only remember the stories. My father grew to hate poor Yogi, because he was top heavy. Each time my sister or I tried to ride on Yogi, he would tip over and dump us on the sidewalk. I think Yogi may have left our home at some point after a couple of years.
My father was a bit protective of his kids. He was also way too busy working in the mushroom houses to want the worry of one of us being hurt by a top heavy bear. I have a vague memory of driving past a home about a mile away and seeing Yogi in the yard. I don’t know if the family had the same bear, or if our bear somehow found its way to a new home. I suspect the latter.
When we were a bit older, my sister and I, and our baby sister, Lori Ann, still got a doll every year. Amy and I got Barbie dolls and Barbie doll clothes, made by a lady who sold them. We never had a Ken doll. My cousins, Wendy and Dawn, had a Barbie play house, but I don’t remember them ever having a Ken doll either. To substitute for Ken, we swiped a one armed GI Joe that had been thrown away by our cousin, Scott. Joe was the only man for ten or more Barbies. Nobody knew much about Joe, only that he had lost his arm in the war.
1970’s Christmas tales.
During the ’70s, Santa Claus left us a record player and some 45 records. That was one of our favorite playthings on rainy days. We loved singing along with the music.
On nice days we had to play outside. One year Amy and I got new bikes. They were girls bikes in the old style with foot brakes. We did not get banana seats or ape-hanger handlebars with wicker baskets. Our bikes ( which now that I think of it were delivered by Santa in the 1960s, but kept and used for 10 years) were way too big for us. My father said we could learn on them and grow into them.
I wrecked on my bike many times. So did my sister. And my cousin. One day Wendy was visiting, and decided to get on my bike. She rode down the little hill past my PopPop’s house and around the garage. Then we heard the crash and ran. Wendy was lying on the ground, madder than a wet hen, after crashing my big bike into the old double outhouse.
Wendy also once wrecked my Flexible Flyer into a tree. The sled was broken. Luckily, Wendy was not. Wendy was only mad again. She never cried. Crying was not her style. But if I remember correctly, when I found Wendy and my broken sled, she managed to work up a few tears. This was to insure that I would feel sorry for her and forget that she had broken my brand new sled.
Once my sister borrowed a bike from our friend and neighbor. Amy was braver than me. I don’t believe she was allowed to ride all the way down Vine Street on an unfamiliar bike, however… she did it anyway. Luckily Vine Street was a dead end road, and there wasn’t much traffic.
Good thing my father happened to be in our front yard. He heard Amy screaming as she came down the hill and ran out into the road. Amy was flying toward my father, screaming, “I can’t stop!” My father hollered at her to use the brakes, but she yelled that she didn’t know how. (She was probably about 7 at the time).
So, my father stood in the middle of the road weaving back and forth mimicking Amy, who was weaving back and forth across the road. She was flying faster and faster. And then, right at the last minute, my father grabbed the handlebars and stopped the bike. I can’t remember what happened after that. I’m sure it involved hollering and, perhaps, a bit of cussing.
We also got other toys from Santa, including a Frosty the Snowman snow-cone maker (upon which Amy shredded her finger when she tried to clean the ice grater), an easy bake oven, roller skates, sleds and other toys to use outdoors.
In later years, Amy, above, always opened the gifts before Christmas. This occurred after school, before my parents came home from work. My mother wrapped all the gifts and trusted us not to look. I didn’t look. I enjoyed being surprised on Christmas. But Amy liked to know what she was getting, and so, she carefully loosened the scotch tape, took off the paper and opened the boxes. Since my mother always bought us the same gifts in different colors, I also found out early.
I once tried to make myself scarce while Amy was opening gifts, so I could be surprised. It didn’t work. She made it a point to tell me that I was getting a green sweatshirt with a hood, and quilted housecoat, just like her. Only her sweatshirt was red, and her robe was much prettier than mine. She told me my housecoat would make my butt look big. (She was right. For awhile, each time I wore that damned robe, Amy referred to me as “Moon River” (wider than a mile).)
The clandestine unwrapping ended at some point. I think my parents found out about it, and my mother began using extra scotch tape, and little stickers and other things that would tip her off if a gift was tampered with.
What great memories. We had so much fun back then, barely seeing our parents except at mealtimes and bedtime. It’s different these days.
I will continue this post soon, with my children and their gifts from Santa.
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