Wonderful memories: Growing up poor didn't keep Christmases from being special

Editor’s note: Kathy Manley was born in a small house on Paint Creek. Later, her family moved to Logan County, where she grew up impoverished with a disabled father and a mother who struggled day to day. Her book, “Don’t Tell’em You’re Cold: A Memoir of Poverty and Resilience,” published by Mountain State Press, is an uplifting story of survival set against the backdrop of the hills and coal camps of southern West Virginia. But being poor did not keep Christmases from being special. Manley agreed to share some of her seasonal reminiscences with Daily Mail WV.

One of my earliest Christmas memories of the ‘50s and ‘60s was the arrival of the green seller. For children, his appearance after Thanksgiving was the first hint that something wonderful was about to happen.

He drove into Logan in his high-sided pickup truck overflowing with bundles of Christmas trees. He parked on a wide spot beside the road, unloaded the trees, and propped them against the truck. In between sales he’d pop inside the truck to keep warm.

Sometimes, he had pine and holly branches and bunches of mistletoe, as well. Some of my neighbors in Verdunville, Logan County, where I grew up, used the branches as decorations for mantels, banisters, and exterior doorways. I thought nothing compared to the piney scent.

Nearly every year on the school bus, a male teenager held up a sprig of mistletoe. He declared he could kiss any girl when it was held over her head. Sometimes, depending on who was dangling the mistletoe, anticipated smooches delighted the girls on the bus and other times, clearly not!

But the green seller wasn’t the only one to offer Christmas greens. Baisden Brothers Hardware in Logan offered trees and decorative greenery. Their trees arrived by train at the Logan Depot. From there, they were trucked to the store and put out for sale the day after Thanksgiving. An assortment of Douglas fir, Scotch and white pine trees lined their parking lot, and sold for around $15 each.

A younger Wyatt Scaggs, the current store’s owner, scampered around the trees and assisted potential buyers. He and other workers kept a roaring fire in the burn barrel, where customers clustered to warm themselves on the cold, dark December days.

Snow seemed to fall more often, back then. Sometimes the flakes were lazy and just swirled about. Other times they came down hard and fast, forcing the buyer to make a quick decision to avoid slick roads going home.

Unlike the green seller, Baisden’s used cinder blocks spread out in rows, with a tree in each one. Customers appreciated the easier viewing as they walked along the rows, admired a tree and examined it. Often, they’d give it a gentle shake, turn it around, and check for bare spots. Finally, one was selected and loaded into the back of a truck, or strapped on top of a car.

For a child, the excitement was just beginning. Back at the house, families pulled out boxes of shiny ornaments, strands of Christmas lights. Most everyone used silver icicles on their trees and a star or angel on top.

The choosing of a Christmas tree was a wonderful tradition for many in Logan; however, money was very scarce in our family, and we never bought from the green seller when I was young. But as we drove by, I always enjoyed watching customers search through the trees and warm themselves by the fire.

As a child, the one decoration I remember in our household was a faded red cellophane wreath. It had a silver candle with a red bulb in the center. Mom hung it in a front window overlooking the alley. Sometimes it hung there for a few days before she could find an extension cord long enough to insert into a drop down socket suspended from the ceiling. Usually, it took two extension cords. My brother, sister, and I loved that wreath and couldn’t wait for it to get dark so we could turn it on.

During those early years, I don’t remember having a tree at all, but later we had a few. Whenever we did, Mom strung one set of multicolored lights, added a few ornaments and a package of icicles. It was beautiful.

During this time, the aluminum Christmas tree became popular. Lights were not placed on this tree, but rather it was illuminated by a red-blue-green rotating light wheel. Glass ornaments were added. Debbie, my childhood friend had one, and I loved going to her house so I could watch the wheel spin and change the color of the tree.

One other thing popular during this time was bubble lights. The lights had to be kept upright because a colored liquid percolated in a sealed glass tube. I thought they were fascinating to watch.

But what went under the tree? Little girls received paper dolls, a Barbie doll, a tea set, a jump rope or a hula hoop. Teenage girls longed for face powder, cologne, a transistor radio, a Princess phone or new clothes.

Younger boys dreamed of a white-handled cap pistol with belt and holster. Also, a roll of caps was a must. My younger brother and other neighborhood boys enjoyed setting off the caps by smashing them with a hammer on a hard surface. They also liked Matchbox cars, train sets and toy soldiers. Older boys received a knife, BB gun or a football. Some bigger gifts included bikes, a pedal car, a Barbie Dream House or a sled.

We usually had snow, so sledding was popular. We used anything we could find to ride down a hill: a box, a piece of tar paper, tin or linoleum. Those who had a sled shared with those who didn’t.

We rode down Verdunville Grade School hill with two or three people stacked on top. It was great fun, especially if we made it safely to the bottom. Sometimes, we crashed into the ditch due to the hampered steering efforts of the poor soul on the bottom, burdened with the weight of other riders on top of him.

During these years, our family struggled to put food on the table, so there were no gifts. Dad always came up with enough money to buy a bag of apples and oranges. I can still see those large red delicious apples. And those oranges! Juicy and sweet. These weren’t just any apples or oranges: They came from Johnny’s Market at Henlawson.

In addition to the wonderful fruit, we enjoyed a large bag of English walnuts. The way in which we kids cracked them made the walnuts special. My brother, sister and I sat on the floor in front of a small gas heater. We shared one hammer, but we each had a different platform on which to crack the nut: a brick, a piece of cinder block, and a piston cylinder.

My favorite was the piston. It was a large round steel disc, and the nut cracked with only one blow. Sometimes the brick or cinderblock didn’t hold up and broke into several pieces.

In addition to the fruit and nuts, we had one more very special Christmas surprise — Mother’s fudge. Somehow, Dad sold enough scrap iron to buy extra sugar, can milk, butter, Hershey’s cocoa and a can of mixed nuts. She cooked the mixture over the gas stove and tested it by dropping some into a saucer of cold water. When it formed into a hard ball, she added the nuts and dumped it into a metal pan. She cut the fudge into squares, stored them in an empty coffee can, and hid it behind the refrigerator.

On Christmas Eve, she “walked” the refrigerator away from the wall, removed the can and gave us each a piece. She rationed a piece every other night. It lasted almost through the Christmas break.

As for Christmas dinner, most families celebrated with turkey or ham, but I was 15 before our family baked our first turkey. Up until that time, Mom prepared a small meatloaf or fried chicken. Dessert was a homemade lemon or chocolate pie.

Santa always played a role in Christmas. I remember the letters children wrote to Santa at the North Pole, c/o WVOW radio station in Logan. They read the letters on the air every day at 4:30 p.m. during December. I listened in on Mom’s floor model Philco radio to what kids my age were asking for: doctor kits, Etch A Sketch, Chatty Cathy dolls, Radio Flyer wagons, bikes and sleds.

One year, I found a Sears Christmas catalog in the garbage can at the post office. I was in love. I slowly studied each page and made a dream list.

Of course there was the department store Santa. Children sat on his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas. Frequently, babies cried and the big guy in the red suit scared toddlers. Even Santa’s ho-ho-hos sometimes didn’t work.

Schools in our community also celebrated Christmas. Students drew names and exchanged gifts during their Christmas parties. Price limits ranged from $2 to $4. We ate vanilla and chocolate frosted cupcakes, homemade fudge and potato chips. Coke, Pepsi and 7Up were served, too. Oh, how I loved those parties!

Verdunville Elementary offered a Christmas program each year featuring each grade coming together to sing Christmas carols or to put on a skit. As a sixth-grader, I enjoyed watching the first-graders stand in a line on stage and spell M-E-R-R-Y C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S and say their lines. Sometimes, a student had his letter upside down, and was coaxed by the teacher to “right” the letter. Usually, someone forgot their line or was overcome by stage fright.

The upper grades went to a radio station in Logan to record Christmas songs. I’ll never forget the year our grade learned, “Away in a Manger.”

The Salvation Army helped at Christmas. A volunteer manned a booth set up on the sidewalk in front of the G.C. Murphy five-and-dime store. He walked back and forth and rang a handbell in front of a red kettle, where people donated money for needy families. Inside the booth, a record player played “Silver Bells” and other Christmas songs.

The downtown was decorated with garlands of wreaths and reindeer strung across the streets. Toys were stacked high in store front windows. Holiday greetings abounded. “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” were shouted out everywhere.

Back then, it wouldn’t be Christmas without attending a church service. The youth group would act out the Nativity scene with Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Whenever possible, a real baby played the part of Jesus. Sometimes the baby slept; other times the baby cried or took a fit.

Quickly, the baby was handed to its mother, but the play continued. In came the angel and the three wise men. Afterward, the congregation received a treat bag of fruit, nuts and a small box of hard candy with a few chocolate creme drops.

I loved the carolers. Our neighborhood had a church youth group that walked up and down the alleyways of the camp and sang carols. Neighbors parted the curtains, enchanted by the carolers’ faces lit by candles. Some would grab a sweater and step outside to listen. I can still see them bundled up in toboggans, long-neck scarves and warm gloves. Our family listened as they lifted up their voices together singing about the Christ child.

As I recall these past Christmases from my childhood, I am reminded that although my family didn’t have much and struggled financially, we did have each other. Even now, with all my comforts of home, at Christmas I am transported back to the baby Jesus crying on the stage, and am reminded of the one crying in Bethlehem, as well.

Among my sweetest memories is Mom making fudge. I can see it boiling on the stove, smell the fresh cut oranges and, once again, I am cracking walnuts on the piston.

Each Christmas, I remember the way it was and wait on the carolers. When they come, I’ll grab a sweater and step out to listen.

Katherine Manley lives in Logan County, where she is an author and teacher.


Campbell, Virginia - 2 p.m., Wallace Funeral Home & Chapel, Barboursville.

Fisher, Helen - 6 p.m., Cunningham - Parker - Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Johnson, Linda - 2 p.m., Highland Memory Gardens, Chapmanville.

Kessler, Carolyn - 5 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home Chapel, Poca.

King, Charles - Noon, Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Nitro.

Pauley, Bernice - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Sigman, Christopher - 2 p.m., Propps Family Cemetery, Summersville.

Williams, Archie - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.