As a boy growing up in the 1940s Teddy Carroll, along with all the children in this somewhat isolated, rural community of Catawba Valley, Virginia experienced a Christmas unlike the boys and girls in the towns and cities on the other side of the towering Appalachians. How could Santa Claus and his reindeer fly over these majestic mountains and not stop? He could not miss seeing the houses below, many snuggling in the hollows with streams of smoke billowing up serving as landing markers to guide a loaded sleigh down to a nearby meadow? We all knew about Santa and in most cases, particularly the younger ones believed he was real. (I am not, 100% sure to this day he wasn’t real). We wrote our Dear Santa letters, complete with our requests, to be delivered Christmas night and mailed them to a Roanoke radio station for “Santa” to read. Homes with radios gave children the opportunity to hear letters read and it was exciting to be a kid who heard their letter read over the radio. Looking through the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs gave us many ideas about what we wanted Santa to bring. There was no limit to a child’s desires and most always our lists were long and unreasonable. It was normal for us to talk to each other about “what we had asked Santa to give to us?”
As the week of Christmas arrived the whole Valley focused on this most joyous time. Christmas trees would be found and cut, with cedars being the choice of most everyone. Homes were decorated as space allowed, and sometimes, outside the house. Every home experienced the aroma of mouth-watering aromas during a two to three day period prior to Christmas Day. However, Christmas Eve was the first big happening as church services were held in every house of worship in Catawba. These events focused on honoring the birth of Jesus. Christmas hymns and scripture reading about Jesus’ birth were featured, but the exciting part of the evening was the children’s program, giving of gifts, and the small bags of fruit and candy. My mother directed the children’s program, seeing that all the kids in our church had a part in the program no matter how small.
I remember vividly my very first children’s Christmas program. Let me explain:
“And now Teddy Carroll will say his Christmas piece.” I slid off of the church pew and slowly walked to the area in front of the pulpit knowing that this was not going to go well. It was the annual Christmas program at Catawba Methodist Church where all the children would participate by reciting a “piece”. A piece was something in the Christmas scripture that we had been given to memorize in preparation for this moment during the Christmas program. The older children would have longer pieces to say than the younger ones like me. The girls always remembered theirs and said them perfectly. My mother was in charge of the program and had coached me for the past two weeks to get up, say my piece and sit back down. Easier said than done! My piece was from Luke chapter two verse eight. It had twenty words but Mama shortened it to six. I stood there fidgeting as a packed congregation waited for me to start. Mama was standing off to the side as she was directing the children’s program. She had a copy of each child’s piece enabling her to cue kids like me who got stage fright. Sure enough, I froze with my mind going blank. I glanced over at Mama and she gave me that look. This was definitely not going well at all. Finally, she prompted me:
Mama: “There were”.
Teddy: “There were”.
Mama: “in the fields”.
Teddy: “in the——–”
I received a soft, sympathetic applause and walked back to the pew. As I passed by Mama she whispered, “wait until I get you home.” I was hoping the program would last a long time.
This Church Christmas program format would be repeated at all the Catawba Valley churches the Sunday night before Christmas or on Christmas Eve, with mostly identical programs. The large, freshly cut cedar tree was decorated with handmade ornaments and such. There were presents under the tree and each child got one. At the end, we all got small, brown paper bags full of edible goodies. There would be an orange, hard candy, bubble gum, and nuts. It was a big deal as I got my first orange at my first Christmas program and that would be the only orange I would get that entire year. Oranges and bananas were rare in the mountains. Now don’t get me wrong, we had fruit in the mountains: apples, pears, peaches, watermelon, cherries, berries, etc, but no citrus, except at the Christmas program at our church. I will never forget those little brown paper sacks each Christmas. That was the only time during the year we all got an orange.
Christmas Comes to The Mountains
Christmas trees were introduced in Williamsburg, VA in 1842. Christmas was declared a National Holiday in 1870. The practice of Christmas trees was introduced around 1900 in Appalachia by teachers who came to teach in the one-room schools sprinkled throughout the Mountains, including Catawba. It is believed that decorated trees in houses did not occur until the 1930s. I would assume the celebration of Christmas, Santa Claus, and gift-giving would have gotten its start at the same time. Once started, it is for sure the celebration was started first in the churches and homes.
It was not unusual to have snow at Christmas since the snows came early in the mountains, usually deep and stayed late into the Spring. Getting one at Christmas was a real treat, but not as big as getting that juicy orange at church. The mountains are especially beautiful in the winter when snow is present and icicles hang down on buildings and trees, sometimes two or three feet long. Nature did her own Christmas decorations. I can remember the many snow fences that were placed along highways to prevent big drifts blocking travel. I guess they helped some.
Most families celebrated Christmas in the same manner when it came to gift-giving. There was usually not much money to be had in most families to spend on Santa Claus giving, although the priority would be focused on the children. We did not have any money in our house in the early years for toys, dolls and such. Oh, we believed in Santa Claus and wrote our letters to Santa each year hoping the Roanoke radio station would read them on the air. Dreaming about visions of sugar plums we would fantasize about all the many things boys and girls would desire to have left under the tree. I was one of those dreamers, but reality set in on Christmas morning when we went to the living room where the Christmas tree was located. There would be presents for all, some wrapped, some unwrapped. Instead of a doll or a BB gun, there would be socks, underwear, jeans, mittens, scarves or some other article of necessity. I was heartbroken at times, as were my sisters although deep down we knew what was coming, and not coming. Things would get better in the years ahead but most of the Valley children in the 1930’s and 1940s got things they needed, not things they wanted. Christmas was still a happy time as we would have a big meal, visit with kinfolk and do fun things. I had always wanted a train set but that was definitely a “dream”. I did take care of that at age 56 when I went to K Mart and got a train set. Used it for a few years after that, too.
Looking back, as a child growing up in those hard times I have never felt I was deprived or missed out on anything. We made do with what we had and we all pretty much had the same things. I learned lessons that serve me today knowing that I did not miss out on anything of value. After all, how many people can say they grew up in Catawba!
Whenever I look back at those times growing up a certain truth comes out loud and clear: Back then when it appeared I had nothing at all———-I realize now——I had the most!