Burton on the Bay:
The Christmas that Almost Wasn't

The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.

-Pierre Corneille, 1606-1684

How true. At this Yuletide, I think back to the Great Depression and living on a New England farm where pennies were counted closely, but few spent - and not only at the Burtons but in all the homes in the country.

One particular Christmas in the early '30s comes to mind: The Christmas, shall we say, that almost wasn't.

It was dreary indeed at Grandma's house where I was spending a few days, then would go home midday to share the holiday - and what gifts there were under our tree - with my younger sister Ruth and our parents.

I was sent to Grandma's in hopes I could cheer her up, a mighty task for a pre-school boy back before there were kindergartens. You see, Grandpa Burton, better known in the countryside as Joel William Burton, had died in October, and spirits were mighty low.

Grandpa and Grandma were close. They were a hardscrabble pair making a living, such as it was, from the land - from Grandpa's prospecting for silver as far west as Nevada, to farming in Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin, then to New England where doctors said the weather would be better for his ailments.

He was getting along in years, and that was in the days before Social Security, Medicare and such, so one worked, worked and worked. Retirement was in the vocabulary of only those who lived in the village and worked in the mills or the stores. Times were tough; had been since Grandpa bought the 100-acre farm a decade and a half previously.


Dirt Poor

They were dirt farmers. They raised crops of strawberries, carrots, cabbage, sweet corn, pumpkins, potatoes, turnips and such; had an orchard of apples, pears, damsons and peaches; raised chickens for eating and the few cents for what Grandma considered household necessities. There was always a cow, two or three in the big red barn, and most of the milk went into butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, cooking and other uses in the big kitchen where the old black wood-burning stove turned out hearty meals.

In the winter, plows, hay rakes, mowers and the harness for the horse needed repairs, as did the barn and outbuildings. The eggs had to be weighed and sorted, and regardless of the season, the chickens fed, the cows milked, the horse tended. And there was always work around the house, shoveling snow and cutting and splitting wood for that big and always hungry stove, which was the main heat source in the big white farmhouse.

In the spring, there was the breaking of new ground, planting, lugging water from the well to start the crops, setting out new fruit trees, accommodating new chicks that came via parcel post, cultivating crops behind the horse, weeding, spraying and hoeing, all by hand. There were trees to prune, pasture fences to mend and who knows what else.

In summer, there was haying (the cows and horse would be hungry come winter) and the first of the harvesting as well as weeding, cultivating, hoeing and planting late crops, lugging water because summers always seemed dry, plants needed to drink and the well needed cleaning. There were wild blueberries to pick as well as the cultivated raspberries that sold for 15 cents a full quart, the long driveway had to be repaired so that after occasional heavy rains when crops had to go to market, the car could deliver the produce without being mired in mud.

And there were trips to town or the city to sell what was raised: Often disappointing junkets because when crops were good, they were good for all farmers so supply exceeded demand and prices were low.

I can still see worried Grandpa at the big wooden roll-top desk, which has been passed down to me, by kerosene lamplight, trying to determine whether the tomato crop - with all the hours spent weeding, and the cost of the young plants, the spraying, the expense of taking to market and the subsequent haggling - was worth the time and expense.

In the fall, there was more marketing with more disappointments over prices less than hoped for, firewood to be stowed, house and farm to be bundled up for winter, the kitchen stove pipe and chimney to be cleaned and repaired: All sorts of things to prepare for because New England winters back then showed no mercy.

Somehow, they managed to send Aunt Caroline to normal school so she could be a teacher. Aunt MiMi and Uncle Jack went to college - she later became a home economics teacher, and he a chemical engineer. But jobs were scarce in the Great Depression, pay was low - and the money wasn't coming in yet.


The Lowest Year

Grandpa had cancer - radiation treatments were $100 a trip and away in Boston. All available money and time vanished in a futile attempt to save Joel William Burton. With winter coming, he passed away.

Income was lower than ever that year because little farming was done. With Grandpa gone and mortgage payments to meet, prospects were dismal of holding onto the farm. So there was no Christmas spirit evident when I arrived.

On the day before holiday, MiMi came home from the teaching job she just got the previous September. Like me, she noted the absence of a Christmas tree, a wreath, anything to indicate the holiday. But she was an adult and could ask questions.

Still grieving, Grandma and Aunt Caroline responded that Grandpa had just died, and it wouldn't be fitting to deck the halls. Whereupon MiMi boldly announced she was taking a bus back to Southern Vermont in the morning because it wasn't fitting, either, to have a Christmas without a tree and proper observance.

I was a sad boy when I headed upstairs by candlelight on the eve. No tree, no presents and MiMi would be going.


Our Miracle

But, miraculously, the spirit of Christmas prevailed.

In the morning there was a tree and the trimmings, including real candles. Auntie and Grandma had cut it during the night. They had gathered holly and princess pine by lantern light for a wreath, baked cookies and boiled fudge. One of Auntie's cotton stockings filled with sweets was hung behind the stove for me, and an odd assortment of used and unused gifts found in the attic, bureau drawer and closets were wrapped in tissue paper and under the tree for all.

Grandma and Auntie worked more industriously than Santa through that Christmas night, and the true spirit reigned in the morning. MiMi knew a boy would be disappointed. More important, she knew the veil of grief had to be lifted to ignite the process of emotional healing.

From under the tree, my book of poems by Eugene Field and a little ivory elephant were gifts I treasured. But, though I didn't realize it then, the manner of giving was the Christmas lesson I would cherish to this day.

By the way, the farm was saved as my determined grandmother, with Aunt Caroline's after-school help, took on all its chores. She passed away in her 90s in '66. But the farm that was almost overlooked by Santa all those years ago is still in the family - and has a Christmas tree each December, as does MiMi's in Vermont.

Happy holidays.

| Issue 51 |

Volume VII Number 51
December 23-29, 1999
New Bay Times

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