Christmas for a Sharecropper's Daughter
My Mama loves Christmas; always has. And it will always be said by us kids that our Mama knows how to keep Christmas well, if anyone alive possesses the knowledge (borrowing language from Mr. Dickens). It cannot be undertaken in just a few words by me to explain why, but she, in her own words, might give you just a hint:
“I lived in many houses when I was growing up. My daddy was a sharecropper. A sharecropper was a person that didn’t own any land; he only worked for people who did, and that usually meant if there was a better offer then we would move again and work for the next man. I was born in the middle of the Great Depression. My daddy’s name was Wesley Daniel, and he was a hard worker from the time he was 12 years old. He lost his father then, and had to start making a living for his mother. So all he knew all his life was hard work and he taught us to know what hard work was and to appreciate what we got from it.
When I see houses today—similar to what we grew up in—my first thought is, “Oh, those poor people.” But at that time, we were so content. I was the youngest of eight children. We always had a roof over our head; we had walls around us. In one house there were cracks in the walls. We could see daylight through the walls sometimes. When we opened the door going into the house the breeze coming through the cracks would cause the wallpaper to kind of “breathe” or make a big “sigh”. That’s one of the things I remember. We ironed our clothes with smoothing irons at that time. And we would heat that on the stove and roll it up in a thick cloth or blanket and put it on our feet at night to get our feet warm before we went to bed. We had an old wood heater in the house. It was one of those that burned you on one side and left you cold on the other. But at that time it seemed like we were as well off as everybody we knew. The landlords were the only people that had finer homes, and we were well satisfied having a roof over our head.
Most of the time my daddy grew cotton. He also grew some vegetables; “truck crops” were what they were called at the time…vegetables that he could share or sell if he could find anybody with the money to buy it. I started going to the fields with the rest of the family to work when I was six years old. I was the water girl. I carried a bucket of water up and down the cotton rows makin’ sure everybody had a drink. And then probably by the time I was seven or eight I was pullin’ a cotton sack of my own. But I remember when I first started pullin’ my own sack I would get tired before the day was up and my dad would motion for me to come crawl on his sack and he would pull me to the end of his row on his sack. I told my children we were not always a family who said “I love you” often; but acts like that showed me every day that I was loved.
Christmas was a big time of the year. We looked forward to Christmas for a long time before it got there. At one point we lived along a main highway that went all the way through the United States; Highway 67. We didn’t have a car, and in the summertime as we walked along the highway we would pick up empty cigarette packages that had tinfoil for the lining in 'em. And we saved that tinfoil all year, gettin’ ready to cover sweet gum balls with it to go on our Christmas tree. They’re balls that fall from sweet gum trees that grow here in the south; very pretty when covered with tinfoil.
My brother and I would go out and get a live tree and cut it for Christmas every year. Usually a pine because my mother thought it made the house smell real good. We nailed boards on the bottom to make it sit up, and put strings of popcorn on the tree sometimes. At first my older brothers would eat the popcorn. One year I told my brothers I had dragged the stringed popcorn through the ashes of the wood heater so they didn’t bother the decorations that year. We made construction paper chains for the Christmas tree at school one year. We were not privileged at home with construction paper and that sort of thing. I remember how hard it was to get it home on a crowded bus with standing room only, trying to keep it from gettin’ crushed. I was so proud that year to hang my construction paper chain on my Christmas tree. Eventually we made chains with paper that came out of Sears catalogues and that was pretty, too.
My daddy bought candy early in the fall. When he would go for the necessary items at the grocery store he would buy sacks of hard candy and put it in a trunk he kept at the foot of his bed. We would all hover around that trunk just tryin’ to smell what was inside. He had some apples and oranges and the candy. And I remember especially when he got a coconut one year—a fresh coconut—and put it in the trunk. I was amazed. He told me that ugly looking thing had somethin’ very sweet inside. I wanted him to let me shake it and he did. I tried to smell it but it didn’t smell. We’d never seen a coconut before. At that time there was a jingle on the radio for Baker’s Coconut that sang out the words to a little tune: “Ba-ker’s Co-conut, coconut for sale!” That was all we knew of 'em. Daddy wouldn’t let us touch any of the apples or oranges until Christmas Eve. We would bake lots of cakes and pies but we couldn’t touch 'em until Christmas Eve. And having no Tupperware type containers at that time to keep the cakes and pies in, they were pretty well stale by Christmas. But we enjoyed 'em anyway until we got sick. When we hadn’t had sugar all year it usually made us sick about the second day.
But it was a joyful time of my life. I cannot describe the joy that Christmas brought…and it was certainly not for the presents we got. I usually got a pair of socks or a handkerchief, or a headscarf; it was not the presents that made it so joyful. And it was certainly not electric lights everywhere—there were none. It was just the joy of celebrating the birth of Jesus. I think if we could hold on to that throughout our lives and feel that real joy nowadays, and no for sure what the real reason for the season is, we could all enjoy a better Christmas.”
From all us kids to you, Merry Christmas, Mama. We love you.
By Pa Mac, as told by Lenora M., copyright 2012, Caddo Heritage Productions
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