Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas then, Christmas now

By Carol Gee

To compare and contrast my childhood memories with the realities of today is a clear indication that some seven decades have past since those bucolic days in Wyoming.

My Holiday Reminiscences

Then - Our Christmas tree was real, as lush as we could afford, at least 5 feet tall, and endowed with the most wonderful aroma. There was no such thing as an artificial Christmas tree until after I was grown. By then these "manufactured by humans" tree came in metal or plastic versions. The metal ones were silver or gold. The plastic came in good-weather green. But by then you could also get your real evergreens artificially "flocked" to look snowy-white.

Now - We know that this happens in lots of places. Yesterday's mlive.com (Grand Rapids Press) news story about giving away Christmas trees happens to also come from Wyoming. Merchants did not by any means give away Christmas trees in Mexico, as this Houston Chronicle article reports. It is an effect of globalization. Oregon ships about 10% of its Christmas tree crop to Mexico. Many were sold at Walmart, now Mexico's largest retailer. To quote:

First celebrated in northern Europe some 500 years ago, the Christmas tree tradition was brought to North America by German settlers in the early 1800s. City dwellers in Mexico City began buying Christmas trees in the 1950s, obtaining them from farms in the relatively chilly highlands nearby.

The Americanized tradition exploded here in recent years as Mexico became increasingly urban and wealthier. Today, more than 1 million trees are imported each season, mostly coming from Oregon. Mexican growers sell untold numbers more.

. . . At $100 to $130 or more for a 7-foot beauty, asking prices for trees at the flower market are more than double the average in the United States. That's a costly tradition in a city where $20 a day is a good blue-collar wage.

Then - Most of the decorations we hung on my childhood trees were homemade. The "garlands" were made of construction paper strips circled into multicolored chains. They also included stringed popcorn. At school we made ornaments as class projects, and Mama hung every one, ugly or beautiful.

Now - There is a growing controversy over tree ornaments imported from sweatshops in China. ABC News carried a story early in December that also included information about Walmart. To quote:

The National Labor Committee, which tracks working conditions in developing countries worldwide, released a report Wednesday titled "A Wal-Mart Christmas Brought to You from a Sweatshop in China."

It documents with photos and video, workers -- some as young as 12 years old -- working at the Guangzhou Huanya Gift Co., which produces ornaments sold in the United States at Wal-Mart and Target stores.

Then - Presents were sometimes homemade, sometimes ordered out of the Montgomery Ward "Christmas" catalog. Re-gifting, however, was verboten with my mother. Our parents saw to it that each child's was of equal monetary value, as nearly as possible. We got one main gift each, as much as the folks could afford that year.

Now - The 2007 holiday shopping season was a worry to retailers but this International Herald Tribune headline tells a better story, "Last-minute US shoppers bring relief to retailers; post-Christmas season seen as crucial." Many of us are waiting to buy our gifts to each other at the big discounts that will come after Christmas. To quote:

Just weeks ago, the holiday shopping season seemed headed for disaster. But in the waning hours before Christmas, the America's retailers got their wish — a last-minute surge of shopping that helped meet their modest sales goals, according to data released late Monday by research firm ShopperTrak RCT Corp.

. . . The spree defied fears that a deepening housing slump, escalating credit crisis and higher gas and food prices would turn shoppers into Grinches — even in the end. Meanwhile, with the season plagued by a slew of Chinese-made toy recalls that began in the summer, there were concerns that shoppers would boycott those products. That didn't happen either.

Then - Food was always delicious, and never felt anything less than special. It was not the cost, it was the care with which it was prepared. The Christmas day menu might include ham, turkey or roast hen with bread dressing. Side dishes were mashed potatoes, candies sweet potatoes, gravy, green peas, homemade cranberry sauce, and yeast rolls. Desserts would be fruitcake, or coconut cake, mincemeat pie and homemade fudge and fondant candy. Christmas Eve's menu was always oyster stew with special little round soda crackers.

Now - I now live in Texas so here is the link to Southern Food Christmas recipes from About.com. Homemade Mexican tamales are also a big Texas tradition. Many of us order ahead and go back to the same source every year. And howstuffworks.com posted lots of "Christmas food trivia" here. To quote:

What's for Christmas Dinner in America?
  • Baked ham
  • Turkey and stuffing
  • Mashed potatoes and gravy
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Green bean casserole
  • Winter squash soup
  • Waldorf salad
  • Cranberry salad
  • Parker house rolls
  • Divinity
  • Red velvet cake
  • Pumpkin pie

To summarize - I never felt too tight a budget as a child. Our Christmases were celebrated together with much attention, tradition and with love. We looked forward to Christmas Eve and to the day itself when we got to open our presents. And we felt rich.

Now - now I know my folks were on a shoestring as I was growing up. The Census Bureau currently keeps track of poverty in America. I quote their 2006 Highlights:

Poverty: 2006 Highlights

* The official poverty rate in 2006 was 12.3 percent, down from 12.6 percent in 2005 (Table 3).

* In 2006, 36.5 million people were in poverty, not statistically different from 2005.

* Poverty rates in 2006 were statistically unchanged for non-Hispanic Whites (8.2 percent), Blacks (24.3 percent), and Asians (10.3 percent) from 2005. The poverty rate decreased for Hispanics (20.6 percent in 2006, down from 21.8 percent in 2005).

* The poverty rate in 2006 was lower than in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available (Figure 3). From the most recent trough in 2000, the rate rose for four consecutive years, from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2004, and then declined to 12.3 percent in 2006 – a rate not statistically different from those in 2002 and 2003 (12.1 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively).

* For children under 18 years old and people aged 18 to 64, the poverty rates (17.4 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively) and the numbers in poverty (12.8 million and 20.2 million, respectively) remained statistically unchanged from 2005.

* Both the poverty rate and the number in poverty decreased for people aged 65 and older (9.4 percent and 3.4 million in 2006, down from 10.1 percent and 3.6 million in 2005)

Miscellaneous links:

  1. A Special Christmas Message from Blackwater at TPMmuckraker.
  2. Boston.com reports that "Bush celebrates Christmas at Camp David"

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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