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Christmas then and now
Dec. 22, 2017
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by Ivan Raconteur

For many people, Christmas is centered around family.

Perhaps that is why I have been thinking about Christmas trees and family trees lately.

It may also be that I have been doing some painting, and when I paint I feel a connection to my maternal grandfather who was a craftsman and self-taught artist.

Whatever the reason, I felt a strong desire to learn more about my grandfather and the rest of my mother’s family recently.

I did some research and the results made me think.

I tracked down the enumeration district (the way the census is organized) in which the family lived at that time, and opened a door into the past.

The page from the 1940 census was a powerful document.

Looking at the hand-written information gave me insight into a time in my family’s history that I know little about.

I am somewhat more familiar with my father’s family, but as I absorbed this census information recently I realized how little I know about my mother’s family.

The first thing that struck me was that my grandfather was older than my grandmother.

I suppose that shouldn’t be too surprising, since he died when I was quite young, while my grandmother lived until I was in college.

At the time of the 1940 census, he was 51 and she was 34.

They had three daughters. The oldest, my aunt Arlene, was 12 at that time, my mother was 8, and the youngest, my aunt Carol was 3.

Arlene died in a car crash in the 1980s, and my mother died in 2000, leaving Carol as the only surviving sibling.

According to the census document, my grandfather, who was born in Finland, was a laborer in an iron mine in northern Minnesota.

That much I had known already.

A fact that astonished me was that sixth grade was the highest grade he completed in school.

As I looked deeper, that was not unusual among men who were similarly situated at that time.

I think the reason it surprised me so much was that I have grown up seeing the work he did.

He was an extremely talented carpenter, and could make or fix anything.

He made some of his own tools, and even instruments, and his carving and painting skills were impressive.

If I wasn’t already certain that a college education is not important for everyone, my grandfather just convinced me. This richly talented man left an incredible legacy, and he never set foot in a college classroom.

According to the census, my grandmother completed one year of college, and that was consistent with what I had heard before.

As I sat pondering my newfound insight into my family’s past, with Christmas lights flickering against the dark windows, I wondered what Christmas was like for them in that year when their family was young.

According to the census document, my grandfather earned a total of just $900 the previous year, having worked only 36 weeks.

The incomes of other men in the area were also fairly low, which is not surprising, since the country was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression at the time.

Even so, and even accounting for the fact that the value of a dollar in 1940 was considerably different than the value of a dollar today, I can’t imagine what it must have been like providing for a family with three young daughters on just $900 for the entire year.

My grandfather was just a few years younger than I am now. I can’t help but wonder what his life was like.

Like many of his contemporaries, he left Finland to find a better life in this country.

Working as a laborer in an iron mine was surely no picnic, and he was supporting a family on an income that seems tiny even by Depression-era standards.

The family raised some of their own food, as many people did back then, but there must have been some lean times for all of them.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average person in the US spent $936 on holiday gifts in 2016. That’s more than my grandfather earned for the entire year in 1939.

And yet, I don’t recall my mother or her sisters ever complaining about their years growing up, or about the Christmases they had.

I’m sure they made, rather than bought, most of their gifts, and the focus was on things other than how much they spent.

I have an impression my grandparents were strict, and everyone in the family had chores to do, but they also had plenty of fun, and there’s no doubt their house was filled with love.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

I believe it’s just another reminder that the spirit of the season has nothing to do with how much we spend on gifts. Money won’t buy happiness.

Christmas is a time to enjoy the people in our lives, and we can’t put a price on that.


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