Skip to content

Christmas in Rural Tennessee During Hard Times


WEAKLEY COUNTY (December 29) — Over the years, many of those who grew up in rural communities across Tennessee recount similar stories concerning how their families celebrated the Christmas holidays during the Great Depression, which began after the stock market crash of October 1929, and lasted until 1939.

Approximately one-fourth of American workers were out of work during this time, and others worked reduced hours for less pay.

Some are comparing the 1930s Depression Era to the current loss of jobs brought on by the government closing certain businesses, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the current national unemployment rate is only 6.7 percent, compared to a jobless rate of 24.9 percent in 1933, the pandemic has closed or limited the operation of area businesses, and many people are out of work this holiday season. Sadly, many mom-and-pop business owners have been forced to close their doors and some will never reopen. Just like during the 1930s, families are suffering economic hardship and having difficulty making ends meet.

Area charities and churches are doing what they can to help feed the hungry. They also provided children from less fortunate families with Christmas presents. While this mission is carried out annually, the need is magnified considerably this year.

Christmas Presents

Christmases during the days of our grandparents and great grandparents were nothing like the over-commercialized Christmases of today.

Many farming families of the 20s and 30s had very little disposable income and could not afford to buy expensive Christmas gifts for their children.

Youngsters during those years, who are now in their 80s and 90s, recall waking up Christmas morning and being thrilled just to find an apple, orange, nuts or candy in their stocking.

If they were lucky, they might even receive a small toy, such as a die-cast model car, Yo-Yo, or porcelain doll. However, sometimes the toys children received were hand-me-downs from their older siblings, which were refurbished to look new.

Many gifts were homemade. Mothers and grandmothers sewed dresses and aprons for girls from flour sacks. Boys got socks, hand-knitted scarves, and maybe, a pair of gloves. The gifts were handcrafted for practical purposes, and great thought was put into crafting each gift.

Most toys of the era were made of wood, fabric or cast iron.

Youngsters from more-affluent families asked Santa for popular toys of the day, such as: toy wagons, tricycles, pedal cars and trucks, erector sets, toy trains, air rifles, dolls and dollhouses. There were also a wide variety of adult-like toys including kids’ typewriters, kids’ adding machines, and medical playsets.

Additionally, legendary board games, like Monopoly, Scrabble and Sorry, appeared on the market in the 1930s.

But, by far, the most poplar toy every boy wanted in the mid-1930s was a Buck Rogers Ray Gun made by Daisy (1934).  Every boy dreamed of owning the gun from the 25th Century.

Dozens of toy companies went out of business due to the economic crisis.


Depression-Era Survival and Christmas Celebrations


People during this time of economic crisis, were self-sufficient. They had to be, or they wouldn’t survive. Many Tennessee families, like others across the nation, were grateful just to have food and shelter.

One elderly gentleman, who is now deceased, once recalled his boyhood during the 1930s. He said, in addition to farm work, he ran a trotline and set out over a dozen rabbit traps to catch game for his family’s table. He sold the extra meat and fish at the local general store, or exchanged his catch for items his family needed, but couldn’t make themselves. The storeowner then sold the fresh game to his customers.

Because money was tight in those days, the presents the children received were sparse in comparison to the plethora of gifts typically found underneath the Christmas tree these days.

Decorations for the tree, if the family had one, were also usually handcrafted. The decorations might include paper or hand-carved wooden ornaments and maybe candles.

There was more emphasis on the birth of Christ, which was acted out in Christmas plays at school and celebrated in religious songs at church.

The routine on Christmas morning usually began by the children checking to see what was in their stockings.  This was followed by a Christmas dinner, as fancy as the family could afford.

There was also the joy of visiting with family and friends during the holidays; and there was no better place to fellowship than at grandma’s house. The trip was often made by traveling in a horse-drawn wagon. Christmas dinner at grandma’s was always the culinary highpoint of the festive holiday season. Families gathered at grandma’s house and contributed food items raised in their gardens. They contributed what they had to Christmas dinner so everyone could share the meal, which was composed of prepared dishes of meats, vegetables and desserts. This usually included chicken and dressing; vegetables (raised in the family garden and canned in Mason jars during harvest); all manner of cakes, pies and other deserts; biscuits made from scratch; boiled custard, eggnog, apple cider and iced tea.

After dinner, family members continued visiting with one another.

If it were a white Christmas, the children had a big time building snowmen and engaging in snowball fights. If there was no snow, they often played tag, hide-and-seek or other poplar games of the day.

Despite the hard times, Christmas was about family being thankful for what they had, not complaining about what they didn’t have.

(For a firsthand account of life during the 1930s, see article “Local woman recalls growing up in the 1930s”.)

Leave a Comment