Days gone by: older folks reminisce about holidays gone by, simpler times

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 20, 2004

What was Christmas like before the Sears Wishbook catalog, PlayStations, and the annual trip to see the mall Santa?

Today's youth might find that question difficult to fathom.

Well, Christmas may not have been as glitzy as it is today, but living through a sometimes hard, common childhood gave a number of local residents a firm foundation on what Christmas is really about, beyond the glitz and glitter.

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When the week ends, Christmas 2004 will be a memory, the rush of shopping will be over, the table cleared of another holiday meal.

For many older Lawrence Countians, Christmases, like the years, come by too quickly these days. Their most cherished memories of Christmas are of a simpler time, a long time ago.

Ronnie and Freda Carpenter

"I have so much to be thankful for this Christmas," Ronnie Carpenter said as he sat at his dining room table. At the top of his list of blessings are a relationship with God, a closely knit family and good health.

Born in 1931 in Coal Grove, his parents, Charles and Goldie Carpenter, may have been short on cash but they had plenty of the things that mattered: love, solid family values and time for their children.

"They taught me to treat other people the way I wanted to be treated," he said. "When our parents died they didn't leave us any money but thank God, they left us with a good name."

Carpenter said his parents brought their children up in church and would often sing together, blending their voices on gospel tunes they knew and cherished.

"We were poor but we had a lot of love in our home," he said.

Money was hard to come by in those days.

"I remember Christmas when I was a child.

I was one of six children. We didn't have money to buy gifts. But we were so excited on Christmas morning to find a toy, an orange, an apple and some candy. Everyone was thankful for their gift," Ronnie Carpenter said.

His wife, the former Freda White, said her memories of childhood Christmases are equally simple. "We always had a tree. Sometimes we took paper and made rings out of it and made our decorations. We strung popcorn. Grandma made taffy and we'd pull that taffy and that was our candy.

"I remember one Christmas, I had the measles and I couldn't stand the light. I got a doll that year and they took it out and brought it to me. I just loved that doll. I didn't ask for any certain kind. I just enjoyed it. I forgot about the measles."

Time went by and Ronnie and Freda met and married. Their 54-year union produced four children, 11 grandchildren

and five great-grandchildren. Through thick and thin, the Carpenters said it was God that held them together as a family and family that made Christmas a holiday.

Christmas 2000 was one time when the family pulled together to make the best of a bad situation: Ronnie Carpenter had been diagnosed with cancer that had advanced to the fourth stage. Carpenter said he is thankful for the prayers of his family and so many friends he has made over the years, and he is thankful that God healed him.

"I'm thankful every day I'm still here," Ronnie Carpenter said.

This year, the whole family, Ronnie and Freda, the children and their families, will gather to celebrate another Christmas, thankful for each other, thankful for another year together.

"I'm thankful for this family," Ronnie Carpenter said. "None of them are on drugs or use alcohol or cigarettes. Most of them are in church. That's something to be thankful for."

How has Christmas changed from when they were children?

"I really think people buy too much now," Freda Carpenter said. "Kids open something, throw it aside and get another present."

Freda Carpenter said she wished families concentrated less on the material aspects of Christmas and more on the real meaning of the holiday: the birth of Jesus Christ.

Hard candy Christmas

For 81-year-old Jim Kennedy of Ironton, memories of childhood Christmases were bittersweet.

"We were so poor we didn't have two nickels to rub together," he said.

Born in Carter County, Ky., Kennedy moved to Lawrence County with his family when he was four. His family farmed land in Hanging Rock and Franklin Furnace.

What they lacked in material possessions, his family made up for in grit and determination. And love.

"Being poor didn't hurt us character-wise," he said. "We appreciated what money was when we went through the depression."

In spite of the lack of money, Christmases were special and he said he remembered the excitement he and his brothers and sisters felt when the holiday season approached. Poor in material possessions did not mean poor in spirit.

Kennedy said he remembered trips into the woods at Christmas time to select and chop down their Christmas tree. The tree was then brought back home and decorated with handmade ornaments. "They were paper, or wood, not anything store-bought. If you had one store-bought ornament, it was precious."

Gifts were precious as well. They were few and they were cherished.

"We usually got an orange or an apple. We thought we were lucky if we got some hard candy."

On some holidays, his parents brought home an even tastier treat.

"We had these candies that were black with white centers, cream drops. We'd occasionally get some of those. Martin Cloran had a store on Railroad Street and he had candy and nuts and apples and oranges and such as that."

Those precious gifts of fruit and candy were placed in stockings by the fireplace by his parents after the kids were out to bed on Christmas Eve.

"We had fireplaces back then. That's how we heated the house. We lived in this house that had cracks in the floors and when it got cold the frost would come up through the cracks," Kennedy said. "We had featherbeds and it was nice and warm when you would get down in them But when you got out of bed you knew exactly how many steps it took to get from the bed to the fireplace to get warm!"

While children grew up hearing the stories of Santa Claus who left those goodies in children's stockings, Kennedy said his parents also instilled in him and his siblings the real meaning of Christmas.

"Dad was practically a walking Bible. They were very religious and they told us about the Lord being born, and how they hung him on the cross for our sins," Kennedy said.

"The true value of Christmas is probably what's changed the most," Kennedy said. "Today, Christmas has become a commercial holiday. People no longer look at its real purpose - the day Christ was born."

Teresa Moore is a staff writer for The Ironton Tribune. She can be reached by calling (740) 532-1445 ext. 25 or by e-mail to