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School Days in December During the 1930s 
By Catherine C. Brooks

     After Thanksgiving holidays at Milford Haven Elementary School, our minds turned towards decorating the windows and classrooms for Christmas. While we students worked on our classrooms, the teachers put their heads together to prepare a program, which we would perform on the stage in the community hall that sat on the south side of the schoolhouse.

     We didnít mind doing inside work at big recess after we ate our lunches since the weather had changed from comfy to cold. In fact it was fun. Some of the boys cleared the Thanksgiving Pilgrims, Indians, corn, pumpkins and colored leaves from the windows. Since we didnít have Scotch Tape®, we had used glue to apply the paper cutouts. It took several washings, using Old Dutch Cleanser®, to get all that goo off. The girls or teacher sometimes had to do the final polishing of the glass panels, making sure no streaks showed. 

     Meanwhile, the girls began making decorations. Some could fold plain white paper and cut beautiful stars to adorn the upper portion of the windows. Some talented students cut trees from green construction paper, or we colored white paper with green crayons. Then many of us decorated the trees with dots of many colors, representing balls. If we had sufficient large sheets of white paper from a grocery store, where clerks used it for wrapping groceries instead of bags, we sat the trees on wavy snowfields.

     Upper students assisted the first and second grade teacher with cleaning the windows and much of the designing for decorating her classroom while the students drew crude Christmas scenes on paper. The best of the pictures were displayed around the upper part of the blackboard. One felt honored if his or her picture was chosen for display. I didnít draw as well as some of my peers in my first two years of school so my picture didnít appear until later grades.

     The upper classroom often had someone with sufficient artistic ability to draw a manger scene on the far side of the blackboard with chalk. Other classes drew individual Christmas scenes on separate sheets of paper that were thumb tacked around the upper portion of the blackboard like the lower grades had.

     When we had done all the decorating of the room or if we didnít have ability to be of much help in that field, we began making paper chains to decorate the Christmas tree. We cut strips of paper about one inch wide and the length desired, and colored them red, green, yellow, orange and any other cheery colors we had in our crayons. One or two students in each group assembled the chain by gluing the ends of the first strip together, then slipping the end of the second strip through the first and gluing it. The act continued until the desired length had been achieved. It took many chains to decorate a five-foot or taller tree. One student cut the heaviest paper available for a large star and colored it bright yellow for the top of the tree.

     About two weeks before Christmas vacation began, four or five of the older boys left quickly after they finished their lunches to seek three cedar trees, which the school had permission to use, holly and mistletoe from Lillyís Neck where woodland covered much of the area. By 1:00 p.m. or shortly thereafter, they returned with the cedar trees and the other greenery, which they left in the woodshed until the next day. Since we burnt wood in the potbelly stove, the trees were each placed in the corner opposite the entrance, as far from the heat as possible, for safety from fire. Boys made a cross out of two flat pieces of wood of equal lengths and then nailed the tree to the cross. By the second day, we had the tree decorated. Even when we only had the paper chains and star, the Yuletide tree made us feel festive. None of our parents put up their Christmas trees until Christmas Eve night when Santa came. If anyone had artificial ice cycles to spare, they donated them to give the tree a bit of glitter.

     Once the teachers had coordinated the Christmas program and assigned parts, we began practice two or three days a week after big recess. The boy, who worked as janitor, had to make a fire before lunchtime in order that the building have enough warmth for the hour we would be practicing. There were songs by groups, solos, recitations and a playóenough that all who could come the night of the program had a part.

     If we needed a scene inside the home for the play, older boys used cardboard boxes obtained from local merchants and made a fireplace with a wide mantle. More boxes sat in the background, making the chimney. Students covered the outside with red crepe paper glued around the edges, and the inside had back crepe paper applied in the same manner. We didnít have scored markings for bricks or other designs on the crepe paper in those days. Girls cut paper stockings to make the scene as realistic as possible.

     Just before the date of the performance, two boys went to find the prettiest tree available to go on the stage and holly for decorating the windows. The PTA had special decorations that stayed stored under the stage to use for the Community Hall tree. 

     On the night of the performance, several mothers donated homemade ice cream and others made cakes to sell. One received a large bowl of ice ream with a slice of cake of your preference for five cents. Somehow Momma and Daddy always arranged 20 cents for our family to enjoy the treat. Twenty cents in the early thirties was far more valuable than it is today. The money they took in would fund the PTA projects so benefit the school. I can remember Daddy telling Momma that he didnít want one personís ice cream because it tasted watered down. Momma explained the one who made it used gelatin for thickening instead of eggs. Thankfully, I donít remember to whom he referred. But the parents probably had few laying hens or a large family. We were still struggling from the results of the Great Depression.

     There were always praises for everyone after the program to build our self esteem though they didnít know much about the term back then. It did encourage us, and we, the children, would agree to perform later in the year for other occasions.

     I canít remember exchanging names for gifts my first two years in the height of the depression. However our teacher gave us each a pencil and sometimes a candy cane, and we took her gifts. I know after second grade when I had reached my seventh year, I embroidered scarves for teacherís gifts, or used an item I had embroidered. I always enclosed a note to say I had done the work myself. 

     We went home with as much or more anticipation for the holidays than children do today. We received few toys except at birthdays and Christmas so even one nice toy became a treasure. I still have a few of mine.

© 2002 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved


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