We didn’t think we were poor. Compared to most of the people in the world, or even millions of other people in the United States, we were sitting pretty.
There were six of us in the family. We lived in a three bedroom, two story house with a fenced yard and large block garage and we could cover the mortgage and the utilities on Ohio’s unemployment benefits when we had to. We had union health insurance so we could go to the doctor and the dentist.
There was always plenty to eat, thanks to careful planning (think rice and beans, vegetable soup, and stir fry with brown rice) and the grandparents’ large garden and their canning skills. I baked the bread, made the yogurt, and “volunteered” at two co-ops. We had two cars that usually worked, and when they didn’t work, my husband worked on them. I thrifted, refinished, sewed, mended, patched, and cut hair. Friends stopped by daily and our parties were potluck and included all the kids.
We just didn’t have much in the way of expendable income.
Christmas present for the kids were chosen with care. We couldn’t afford too many, and we couldn’t afford to go into debt for the holidays, so each present had to be something they wanted and something that should last.
I kept my eyes open for stocking stuffers all year — small, age-appropriate toys or gadgets that would make an interesting bulge in a Christmas stocking. These were stored in a box in the closet beneath the stockings themselves.
The boys would clamor for the tallest Christmas tree that would fit beneath the ceiling. We waited to buy that tree until the last minute, when the few that were left were marked down to half price. They were also — every single one — crooked. We lodged the trunk in a metal bucket, among bricks, and filled in with pea gravel before adding the water. The skirt was an old sheet. It could be a challenge to set up a crooked tree, but once the decorations were on, no one could tell. (We hoped.) One year our tree had so few branches that our oldest son dubbed it the Christmas Spear.
After we bought presents for four kids, there wasn’t much money left to buy presents for anyone else. And half the joy of Christmas is giving presents. Those years when we were especially cash-strapped, we still wanted to give presents.
Luckily, before I got sick, I had boundless energy.
One year I ordered potpourri ingredients from Frontier Herbs through our coop. I combined star anise, lavender, rose petals, some essential oils and I don’t remember what all to make a very fresh potpourri blend. My daughter and I stitched up sachet bags and sachet cats with embroidered faces– dozens of them — from fabric scraps and ribbon and lace left from other projects. We boxed the bags and cats into gift sets and wrapped them up and mailed them out.
We were so pleased with how they turned out! We thought they were wonderful! We set them off hoping the recipients liked the gifts one smidgen of how much we liked them.
Another year, my daughter and I paint and varnish to decorate clothespins — lots of them. We painted them all different colors and then painted designs over that first coat. These were an unexpected Christmas gift, to say the least. (They proved durable. I’m using some that outlasted my mother and my aunt.)
One year we made fantastic rum-soaked Christmas cakes and gave those to everyone. I put up luscious peach jam and handed those out.
For the Mothers’ Milk Bank Club Annual Bean Dinner and Christmas bazaar, I sculpted hundreds of salt dough ornaments. Each cat, or angel, or Santa, etc was individually rolled and pinched into shape (similar to these). Every Teddy bear wore either Lederhosen or skirt. Every lion had a curly mane and every sheep had fluffy wool. I painted each figure in multiple bright colors and didn’t spare the polka dots, swirls, tiny flowers or eyelashes. Each received three coats of varnish. I set up an assembly line in the dining room to churn them out. And I did it two or three (?) years in a row.
Other years I made appliquéd crib quilts which were raffled off at the bazaar.
There were bigger projects. My husband and I built, finished, and partially furnished two big doll houses, one for our daughter and one for my kid sister. And I assembled a set of reproduction antique porcelain doll head and limbs onto a cloth body and stitched up a Victorian wardrobe as a surprise for my daughter.
And one year my daughter learned to play piano pieces from a Scott Joplin sheet music book as her Christmas gift to me.
It was a challenge, making Christmas while making-do. A lot of our friends were in the same position so it felt normal to us. But as other families in our straits moved to greener pastures, and my husband’s jobs grew further apart and further away, we weren’t challenged anymore — we were stressed. We finally had to say goodbye to that house and that life and move to greener pastures ourselves.
It was during that move that CFIDS/SEID struck me down. I got out of the moving van with a case of flu, we thought, and it never went away. I am much better than I was in those first years, but I don’t take on any more big Christmas projects.*
Now there’s just the two of us and Bobo, the world’s best (because he comes when he’s called) dog, in a four bedroom house. We don’t buy a tree or fill any stockings. I just take the tree out of the box, set it on the mantle, and plug it in. It’s less than ten inches high and wears its ornaments all year. The stocking are hung by the chimney with care but they’re just decorative, too. A few strings of lights in the windows are the final touch.
These years, when I’m up to it, I make Christmas cards, usually linoleum block prints
turned out in assembly line fashion like those salt dough ornaments years ago. But the only Christmas presents I make these days are the knitted sort.We still have everything we need and plenty to eat (too much!). Nowadays, we even have some of that expendable income we used to hear rumors about to use toward presents.
But picking the right gift? — that is still a challenge.
*Well, except for the needlepoint piano bench cover I made for my daughter and her husband. The first year they got the blank canvas and a promise. The next Christmas they got the finished cushion featuring life sized portraits of sock monkeys Leslie and Fred.