On a dirt road in the backwoods of Jackson County, Gibson stands in front of his abandoned childhood home. It’s still situated on his 112-acre property, a testament to his youth and the hardships faced by his family growing up in the Great Depression.
“No electricity, no telephone, no indoor plumbing,” he said. “We got water from a hand pumped well. Back then all we had was the fireplace to heat the house. I remember days when a bucket of water would freeze in the kitchen during the winter.”
And with the cold winds of an impending winter currently flowing through Western North Carolina, Gibson thinks about what Christmas was like when he was kid, when times were rough but you always kept your head up.
“You’ve heard of the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’? Well, most people around the community here during the Depression were ‘have nots,’” he solemnly stated. “Of course, we enjoyed Christmas when I was young, maybe even more so than today, because it was a special occasion, and we didn’t have many celebrations back then.”
These days, Gene and his wife of 67 years, Estella, reside in a more modern home just down the dirt road from the abandoned abode. It looms just up the hill, and Gene remembers what the true meaning of Christmas was in that old house.
“Firstly, it’s about the birth of the baby Jesus,” he said. “And that’s the reason we celebrate Christmas. Today, we’re smothered to death with commercials and presents, and I’m afraid a lot of the younger generations doesn’t even know or remember why we even celebrate Christmas.”
An only child, Gene spoke of those early years going outside, chopping down your own tree, making your own decorations — out of red and green paper and popcorn — and simply being thankful for whatever you got, even if it was nothing more than being grateful for having a roof over your head and food in your belly.
“As far as Christmas went, we’d get an orange and a stick of candy usually,” he said. “Or we’d get a coconut and bust it open. You see oranges and coconuts were only available up here once a year, around Christmas. I remember one year getting a box of crayons. That was a big deal. We were more appreciative in those days, I think.”
One of 12 children, Estella’s father owned a country store.
“We believed in Santa Claus and we tried our hardest to be good,” she said. “We’d have oranges, apples and different kinds of candy. My favorite gift was a baby doll.”
Though they didn’t have an automobile, Gene and his family would walk everywhere, visiting neighbors or going to the nearby church to decorate the tree and partake in a sing-along.
“It was a local celebration, with neighbors all gathering together. There’s a reason we celebrate Christmas, and celebrate it with loved ones,” he said. “You can’t help but look back and think about those days. Children today get so much that I sometimes wonder if they even appreciate any of it.”
Tis’ the season
On a rural hillside in Cruso, off of U.S. 276 in Haywood County, Carroll and Eva Mae Burress can only shake their heads when they think of Christmas in the 21st century.
“When we were young, we were taught that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday and now it’s just a ‘holiday,’” Carroll said. “What is a holiday without any meaning?”
“Nowadays, it seems people just dread Christmas,” Eva Mae added. “They spend all this money and buy all of these things, which will take all of the next year to pay off.”
Carroll is 84, Eva Mae 81. They’ve been married 66 years, and throughout that time have tried to retain what makes Christmas special — friends and family. They both grew up during the Depression. Times were hard, as was the case around the country at that time, but, even with seemingly nothing, people were happy just to be alive, to make it through another year with hopes for better things to come.
“Although we didn’t have a lot of money, not like they spend today, everybody then had a happy feeling in their hearts,” Eva Mae said. “It was a cheerful time. You didn’t have to have anything to be happy. Everybody was smiling and would holler ‘Merry Christmas’ at you — it was just a different time.”
Growing up in Clay County, Eva Mae was one of nine children. When she was five years old, her father passed away a couple months before Christmas.
“That Christmas we didn’t expect much,” she quietly said.
But, even in the midst of a tragedy, Eva Mae and her family always tried to make the best of things. They’d spend all year collecting discarded candy wrappers from the side of the road, ideal for decorating the tree alongside popcorn stringed around it. A good Christmas for them was getting an orange, an apple and maybe some candy.
“It’d be the only time of the year we’d get candy,” Eva Mae smiled.
One year, a lady at Eva Mae’s church bought presents for all the children in the congregation who weren’t getting anything. And when the small gifts were plucked off the church tree and handed out, it appeared Eva Mae’s was nowhere to be found.
“Oh, I was heart was broke, probably the saddest I’d ever been,” she said. “But, they searched and found the little box way up the top of the tree. It was my gift, which was two little Scottie dog hair clasps — I was so happy.”
Raised in Cruso, Carroll was ecstatic when his father would give him a small box of fireworks.
“You know how boys are, and was I excited to death when he’d bought me that assortment of fireworks,” he laughed. “The whole family would go outside and up on a hill at night, lighting off the fireworks and having a real good time.”
Carroll fondly remembers the Christmas dinners, where everyone they knew and loved showed up to spend time together, sitting down for a rare but graciously appreciated feast. Though those days were difficult, financially and emotionally, what has remained for both Carroll and Eva Mae is the notion that though tomorrow is another day of possibility, today is a day to be thankful for life and all the beautiful things in it.
“Back then, no matter what you got, you were proud to have it,” he said. “Nobody had much money, but we enjoyed the peace and happiness of visiting friends and family.”