Remembering Past Christmases: Home for the Holidays in 1932

Only a few readers will recall Christmas as it was celebrated seventy years ago. For many on the Tantramar and elsewhere, Dec. 25, 1932 was unmistakably grim. The Great Depression that began with the Stock Market crash of 1929 was now a fact of life. Yet despite harsh economic times, and a much simpler life style, the true spirit of Christmas was everywhere apparent. Lets go back and sample Christmas when the season was much shorter. Unlike 2002, it did not start immediately after Halloween; only to end in a whimper with the January sales. In 1932 the beginning was signaled in early December when practices for Christmas concerts began in earnest.

About the same time, advertisements for Christmas Specials appeared. By comparison with today, merchants in Dorchester, Port Elgin and Sackville might seem to be offering bargains galore. Some examples were: Grapefruit selling at 4 for 25 cents; Red Grapes 2 lbs. 25 cents; Green Grapes 20 cents per lb. A box of Moir’s Chocolates cost $1.29. Electric irons were $2.35; while table lamps ranged from $1.35 to Deluxe Models at $12.50.

Bargains? Not really. When the prevailing low wages are factored in; for untold numbers, the season was anything but merry. The Sackville Post encouraged all who could afford to support the annual Christmas Stocking Fund for the needy. C. C. Avard, then editor of the rival Tribune spoke for many when he editorialized: The main idea on this Christmas of 1932 is to carry on and live one day at a time, doing our duty as we see it, with the hope that the skies will clear and that the storm of Depression will soon pass.

Both rural and townspeople shared adversity during the 1930s; yet those living on farms had one advantage, they seldom went hungry. A preoccupation then as now, was with the weather. In 1932 the Tantramar was experiencing an unusually mild spell. The downside was the problem of muddy roads. However, at least one rural correspondent reported that the usual activities of the season are in evidence cars and carriages are moving too and fro on either side of the Isthmus. Despite a Green Christmas, Santa Claus was scheduled to make his appearance at the Imperial Theatre. Admisssion: Boys and Girls 15 cents; Adults 25 cents. All children were guaranteed a bag of goodies.

It was noted in the newspapers that Prime Minister R. B. Bennett would not, as was his custom, spend Christmas in Sackville at his brothers [Captain R. V. Bennetts] home on York Street. Instead, the Prime Minister was then on his way back to Canada, from an official visit in England. Radio was still a novelty in 1932. The annual Christmas message by the reigning monarch, a tradition that continues today, was eagerly awaited. Relayed by short wave and transmitted locally by the Moncton radio station; the reception was reported loud and clear on the Tantramar.

To fully appreciate Dec. 25th, 1932, I would like to share an account by someone from away who decided to return home and experience, once again, a Chignecto Christmas. The writer was Lyman T. Chapman (1897–1980), a native of East Amherst, whose ancestry may be traced to William Chapman, a Yorkshire settler at Point de Bute in the mid 1770s. Reputedly, this family can claim more direct descendants than any other of Yorkshire origin on the Tantramar. Chapman was then based in Winnipeg where he edited The Nor-West Farmer. Later, he was to succeed Point de Bute native, Dr. John M. Trueman as Principal of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. Following service in the RCAF during the Second World War, he returned to journalism, and will be remembered both locally and across Canada, for his longtime editorship of the popular Family Herald. The story is best told in Chapman’s own words.

As the festive season of 1932 approached, I had a sudden longing for a Christmas at home, something I had not experienced for 15 years. It is said that nostalgia is the strongest of human emotions and looking back over the years, there is a danger of becoming sentimental. Yet, we are more likely to appreciate such occasions in times of adversity, rather than in times of prosperity. In 1932 we were certainly in the midst of adversity.

Although relatively well paid as a magazine editor; because of payments on the mortgage, radio and car I was obliged to borrow on my life insurance to finance the trip. My wife, young son and I set out with high hopes; looking forward to my parents [Alexander and Minnie Chapman of East Amherst] meeting their first grandson. We traveled by rail to Toronto, then Montreal and finally Amherst. As always, the family Christmas tree was a welcome sight. 1932 was the first time in many years that a stocking had been hung by the chimney with care. Another touch of the good old days was the Christmas concert in the one room schoolhouse. Like those of earlier years, it was a mixture of reverence and revelry. The babe in the manger, the three wise men and the star of Bethlehem were all there. The little schoolhouse was packed with fond parents and visitors.

My brothers [Curtis and Ross Chapman] reminded me of incidents during our childhood Christmases. When the family circle was assembled, they kidded me about the times I put out a tub of water on Christmas Eve for Santas reindeer. The tub was always empty on Christmas morning. Christmas Day routine had hardly changed over the intervening years. Children were wide awake early to find out if their fond hopes had been realized. As soon as the morning chores were done, the extended family began to gather for Christmas dinner at noon. The men sat in the kitchen until mother had too little elbow room at the range and kitchen table. When she gave the word, everybody moved to the living room.

By this time, the food began to appear on the dining room table. The carving of the turkey was done in the kitchen and plates were passed along in an assembly line. The vegetables were all home grown. The cranberries were picked on our own Tantramar Marsh. Maybe the Christmas pudding had some spices from town, but the summer savory in the dressing was the real thing. Dessert and the pudding came later, as well as fruit, nuts, tea, coffee and milk; not forgetting the choice of mince or apple pie — the latter being smothered in whipped cream.

After dinner there was storytelling and a discussion of family events and tales of Christmases past. The new grandson was well in the foreground with the contents of his stocking. As chore time again approached, the horses were harnessed and the relatives departed. On New Years day there was a repeat performance at my grandfathers farm three miles away. After New Years celebrations were over, we returned to Winnipeg. Of course, the grandson held centre stage right to the finish. As his grandmother was fastening his coat, he sang a childhood song, complete with lisp. This put the finishing touch on my best Christmas.

Unfortunately, as the dirty thirties wore on, the skies were not to clear; and the economy worsened; only to be rescued by World War Two. And yet, Lyman T. Chapmans observation that people appreciate Christmas even more in harsh times, continued to ring true. The essential character of a Maritime Depression Christmas was also captured in Ernest Bucklers classic novel The Mountain And The Valley. By contrast, he portrayed a family struggling to make a living on a marginal farm; not on the fertile Tantramar or in the productive Annapolis Valley, but on the barren soil of Nova Scotias South Mountain.

Heres how Buckler explained the true magic of the season: There were the three days: the day before Christmas, the day of Christmas and the day after. Those three days lamplight spread with a different softness over the blue-cold snow. Faces were all unlocked; thought and feeling were open and warm to the touch The yellow lamplight soft-shadowed faces like a flood and gathered the room all in from outside the windows. In that instant suddenly, ecstatically, burstingly, buoyantly, enclosingly, sharply, safely, stingingly, watchfully, mountingly, softly, ever so softly, it was Christmas Eve. What a difference the glow from a kerosene lamp can make! Compliments of the Season to all Flashback readers!