Christmas was once more about family and food than presents
Their dads went out to snowy hillsides and chopped down great big pine trees.
Their Christmas trees weren’t strung with flashing lights but were just as pretty with popcorn and cranberries.
Their Christmas lists weren’t lists at all, but a smile and a “thank you” for some socks and underwear, maybe a doll.
Children who grew up in the 1920s, spent their teens during the Great Depression and started families at the height of World War II recently shared some of their fondest memories of the old-fashioned Christmases of their youth.
Margaret DeCrescenzo grew up in the country. Born in 1922, she lived in a modest home in Mechanicville. They had no electricity yet, only kerosene lamps.
“We had these ornaments, these candles,” she recalled. “There was a little clip that would go onto the branch and you’d put the candle in and then we’d have to sit there and watch them. When the flame would get down low, you had to blow them out and put another candle in so that the tree wouldn’t catch on fire.”
DeCrescenzo turned 90 on Election Day. Her daughter was visiting a week later at Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Glenville, and they spent time talking about the Hungarian Nut Horn recipe that has been passed down through the family over the years.
When she was a little girl, DeCrescenzo remembered her older brothers were always off playing while she and her mom would string the garland and make cookies.
“My mother was a wonderful baker, and I had all of her recipes, and now my daughters are making the same cookies I did and she did,” she said.
To make the crescent-shaped treats, she would grind up walnuts, egg whites and sugar. When she was unable to stand long enough to bake the cookies, DeCrescenzo made sure to write down the rest of the ingredients for her daughters.
Her daughter, Marge Lupe, made the Hungarian Nut Horns for her mom’s 90th birthday party.
“Before she came here to Baptist, she would make nine different kinds,” said Lupe. “And being a diabetic, she had good discipline and would give them away to all her friends and neighbors.”
Of course, DeCrescenzo would have to sample one beforehand, “just to see if they were alright,” she said with a chuckle.
When she tries to remember her favorite Christmas presents, she has a hard time. She doesn’t even remember having a doll, which was a coveted gift for little girls.
“We were poor,” she said. “My father worked in the brickyard. My mother was home with us children. I mean, we were happy with what we had, but you didn’t say you wanted this or that because you couldn’t afford it and you wouldn’t get it. We were happy just being together with family and enjoying the food.”
Vivian Hopkins, on the other hand, couldn’t get dolls off her mind. Every Christmas, every birthday, her mind wandered to dolls.
“Oh, I was crazy about dolls,” she said.
When she got one doll, she wanted another.
“I was 12 years old when I got my last doll, and I still have it,” said Hopkins, 91. “It’s very old, but it’s my favorite doll.”
It’s a baby doll. She’s wearing a dress, a bonnet and little shoes. Her name is Linda, just like every other doll Hopkins ever had, for no other reason than that she liked the name Linda.
Her family grew up on Front Street in Schenectady during the Depression. They didn’t have a lot and were happy with what they had. Her mother wasn’t much into buying toys as Christmas gifts. Her older brothers usually got shirts and neckties and underwear. And she usually got clothing, as well.
But like many families, the Hopkins would attend a church service on Christmas Eve. And the minister, knowing that her mother was trying to feed five children during the Depression, would walk over to the family with a basket full of gifts.
Inside was a doll for Vivian. She named it Linda.