Harmon’s Histories: As Christmas 2022 nears, a fond look back at simpler gifts
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Time is running out for Christmas shopping.
This year’s gift suggestions include fancy watches, cordless cork removers, skin-care products, beverage makers, beard trimmers, yoga mats, wine collections, rechargeable hand warmers, and self-heating beverage cups.
It’s enough to make one look back fondly to simpler times and simpler gifts.
In 1889, the Great Falls Leader newspaper suggested doll carriages, express wagons, sleighs, shoofly rockers and wheelbarrows. One of the staff writers even remembered back to a time of no gift-giving at all!
The headline was: “A Moneyless Christmas,” and it serves as a good reminder to all of us – even in 2022.
“A Christmas without spending money! Midwinter holidays without dolls or picture books, tops, toy cannon or jumping jacks, colored candies or any "store presents" of any kind whatsoever! Christ's nativity celebrated without a Christmas tree or a Christmas carol or a gathering of the children – no evergreen shrub sparkling with glass, no Santa Claus and no pantomime. Could such a thing be in a Christian land?
"And it is not so very long ago that just such a Christmas was the rule in three-fourths of the United States – nay, it is the rule now in considerable sections where there are no large towns.
"So easily do we get accustomed to what is, and so naturally do children believe that the system they first noticed has always been the system, that most people do not know, and even the older ones are forgetting, that the Christmas of today is comparatively a new thing.
"But what was the old-time Christmas, and with what sights and sounds was it ushered in?
"Well, in the first place, it was – in all the rural regions at any rate – a time when no money could be "wasted." Children must have their fun without extra expense, except as each child had carefully saved his pennies. As to deliberately handing out a half dollar to a boy for Christmas – the average father would as soon have thought of giving him a deed to the farm!
"It was a season for rabbit hunting and sledding if there was snow enough, and for sliding if there was ice, for a good dinner and an extra piece of pie, and then perhaps, for some homemade presents.
"A little later, toys began to come in say about 1850 – in the central west, and such toys!
"Blocky horses, square cornered cows, dogs made of clay and burnt black in the fire, and so forth and so forth; a collection of them now would throw a group of children into convulsions of laughter.
"Be it remembered that less than 50 years ago, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis were the only cities really known to the great mass of people living west of Ohio and north of Tennessee, and nine-tenths of the people under 20 years of age had never seen a city of 10,000 inhabitants. And in those days, rural America celebrated Christmas literally without money.
"Plenty of people, who do not like to be called old, can recall the time when, in all the bookstores of the rural regions, only two or three kinds of "story books" could be found, and as to holiday books and holiday goods as such – well, they could be found in the cities, probably, but not one child in a hundred (in rural areas) ever saw one of them.”
An interesting perspective from 1889.
Even by the late 1940s and early 1950s (my childhood years), the presents under the tree were still frugal, reflecting my parents’ upbringing in the depression years. We received a toy or two we actually wanted, but most of the gifts were practical: socks, handkerchiefs and the like.
The memories, though, were priceless: an outing in the woods to find the perfect tree, someone – other than me – retrieving decorations from a very dark corner of the attic (an area absolutely, definitely haunted), a Christmas Eve church service, and a near-sleepless night anticipating Santa’s arrival.
Here’s wishing that your Christmas will be as memorable as mine have been, and – in the words of Clement Clark Moore written in 1822: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.