Cover Story: A Very Brady Christmas

Grandparents remember their own low-tech holidays

Ryan Greis

I never really gave any thought to the fact that my grandparents grew up during the Depression. And I never thought what effect that had on Christmas.

I'm used to having a Christmas tree and lights and hordes of presents. Of course, I'm also use to having a computer, a VCR, a stereo and just being all around spoiled. And, as appreciative as I am, I've also taken it all for granted — more than I realized.

For a while, my grandfather, who I refer to as Papa, lived in the basement of a friend's house with his single mother and his brother. There was no tree, no decorations. But there were still gifts.

"One year, I got a used baseball glove, a bat that was splintered and nailed and taped together and a baseball that had black tape all around it," he remembers. "I thought it was the greatest thing in the world."

Well, that is until another Christmas came when he lived in a Toledo suburb and his mom worked in the city. "I remember getting a pair of rollerskates for Christmas," he says. "I was so proud of those skates that I skated into town to meet (my mom). I just wanted to ride home with her on the bus."

My grandmother, better known to my friends as Gram, didn't have those types of luxuries. "I didn't have a doll that I remember," she says.

Instead, she and her eight siblings would usually each receive two gifts. Mostly it was little items that were needed, such as pajamas, although one year she did get a purse.

But nothing was wrapped fancy. "They didn't have pretty wrapping paper," she explains. "Everything was wrapped in white tissue paper with Christmas stickers, little cheap stickers."

Unlike her future husband, though, Gram and her family did have other comforts of Christmas, namely a tree. "It was always a real tree," she says. "It was just an ugly tree."

Papa didn't have a Christmas tree until he was in high school, after his mother remarried. It was as close to a traditional Christmas as he'd have until after World War II ended.

Serving behind German lines, my grandfather celebrated Christmas essentially alone. He and members of his division, nicknamed the "Battle Babies" because they were so young, sat 10-15 feet apart on the slope of a hill eating turkey out of mess kits. But there was no peace on earth. Occasionally, a shell would be shot toward them to let the soldiers know the Nazis were still present.

When my grandparents — who had spent the first four years of their marriage apart because of the war — reunited, Christmas began looking more like, well, Christmas.

"I remember when the silver Christmas trees came out," Gram remembers, commenting on the colored spotlights that sat on the floor and shone upon the tree. "That was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. The tree would just sort of sparkle then 'cause it was silver. It was real glamorous."

But Gram and Papa never exchanged gifts, at least not until I was born. "We used to save our money to give the kids," Papa explains. "We didn't exchange gifts for years."

So my mom and two uncles would receive all the stuff that my grandparents never had as children. "When we had kids, it was all toys," Gram says. And that included giving my mom dolls, the primary thing Gram missed out on as a little girl.

And then into their lives came the most precious and perfect angel ever born on earth: me.

"When you came along, Christmas really exploded," Gram says, telling me about the big stuffed animals Santa would bring me. Everything would be piled under the tree.

And that first year my grandparents exchanged gifts, he gave her a leather coat and a watch.

When I first sat down with my grandparents to discuss Christmases past, I expected an amazing recollection of how radio, television and computers helped influence Christmas over the years. Well, technology changed many things, but not Christmas in my family. It was never about that — it was just about family.

"I look forward to seeing you happy, seeing the kids happy," Papa tells me. "I enjoy having the kids around, probably more so than they realize." ©