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A Depression Christmas

Dec 23, 2014

It was Christmas time on the farm during the Depression in South Dakota. The harsh wind swept across the plains and entered the cracks around the windows and doors in our house. The hot days of summer were a faded memory. Our crops were meager at best, but we always produced a bumper crop of children. The number of kids in the small house grew with each passing year until it hovered at 10, by far the best crop during those bleak years.

The week before Christmas held lots of excitement in our household and local community. There was the annual program put on by children at the small country school. As with most child-headed projects, the results were often mixed and surprising each year — anything could happen and generally did. We sang traditional carols while our mother played the old pump organ, which had been home to mice during the summer. In its old age not every key produced sound — and the sounds it did happen to produce were of questionable quality — but it served the school well and was a wonderful way to drown out off-key interpretations of "Jingle Bells" from the children. My mother played the organ with gusto, but it often required my brother lying on the floor and pushing the pedals when she became tired.  

A second program followed at the country church, again with questionable talent. Everyone learned the speaking parts in case Joseph or the wise men came down with the flu or the measles, a common occurrence in that day. Santa was always played by one of the local men, no doubt chosen by drawing straws due to the moth-eaten dusty suit they were required to wear. Santa always came bearing candy for the children, which was greatly anticipated.

Memories of Christmas Eve at home began with a huge kettle of oyster stew sitting on the back of the wood stove. This was an extra extravagance that we could ill afford, but a beloved uncle in Washington, D.C., provided the feast by sending $5 for the oysters. How we savored the taste.

The tree had definitely seen better days, as every other branch was missing. It seemed to plead to be put out of its misery. Our rings of green and red paper chains covered the bare parts. One year we attempted to string popcorn but failed miserably because the popcorn was consumed before it had even the notion of being put onto a string. Trees at that time were simpler. No tangled lights were visible because electricity had yet to arrive. Still, the tree stood as a symbol of the joy and merriment of the season.

What presents could be found under the dilapidated tree? Warm clothing was high on the list: a pair of long brown stockings, warm mittens, heavy plaid shirts and long scarves. One child received a photograph album in which she cut and pasted pictures from the Montgomery Ward catalogue because the camera did not work. A local grocer provided a small rubber doll that two girls shared. A Tom Sawyer book and an oversized book of Bible stories were read and reread during the long winter months. But the last and always the best gift was a game to be shared by all. Monopoly was one of our favorites. Eventually the board was in two pieces from overuse, the houses and hotels were in short supply, and you had to know where Park Place was located. No stockings were hung by the fireplace — probably because we were wearing them, and there was no fireplace on which to hang them.

Yes, we were poor. There was not an abundance of gifts under the tree, but we had two loving, hard-working parents, lots of playmates, enough food, good health and kind neighbors. What more does one need at Christmas?

Florence Nachtigal Lang grew up on a farm near Platte. She attended South Dakota State University and taught school in Bristol and Parkston. She and her husband have homes in Byron, Minnesota, and Fort Myers, Florida.


05:55 am - Wed, December 24 2014
Sharon Huizenga said:
Florence Lang is the late Ralph Nachtigal's sister. She shared this story with me in hopes that I would reprint it in the Platte Enterprise since her brother owned the Enterprise from 1965 to 1999 and still worked here at the time of his death. I will give South Dakota Magazine the proper credit. She felt bad that she hadn't sent it to you in time for the Christmas issue of your magazine but was thrilled to have it posted on your magazine's website. Keep up the good work with South Dakota Magazine. Merry Christmas.
07:47 am - Wed, December 24 2014
Mary Ellen Drajna said:
Blessings to this dear lady who is in our water aerobics group in Kasson, MN. She is full of surprises, and this year she did her Angel presentation for our group of ladies and also for my homemakers group. We were all silent while she did the story for us, believe it or not with a group of women!
12:19 pm - Wed, December 24 2014
Dorothy Bourquin said:
A wonderful recollection of a past Christmas, one that was not so full of material things but plumb full of love! Thanks, Flo. Will see you in 2015, back in Byron.
07:57 am - Fri, December 26 2014
Brian Burg said:
The plain facts tell a rich story about meaningful living. Thanks for this Christmas gift, Flo.

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