Christmas at the Sheppard house could not begin until the sounds of “O Tannenbaum,” played on a piano, signaled the time for the children to come downstairs and gather around the tree.
Mary Sheppard DeArmond recalls what then always seemed like an endless wait.
“My mother was a musician and was German, so she would play the song on the piano, and my brother and sister and I would come tearing down the stairs,” DeArmond said. “Even my father would have to wait until mother had summoned us.”
The year was 1929, and the Christmas morning ritual was long a part of DeArmond’s family traditions. In her stocking that year, DeArmond would find an orange and very little else under the tree. Almost two months before — on Oct. 29, 1929 — Black Tuesday hit Wall Street as investors traded about 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day. Billions of dollars were lost. What followed would be known as the Great Depression, which lasted until 1939 and remains the longest-lasting economic downturn in America.
In Butler, where DeArmond grew up before moving to Lamar and later to Joplin, the steady stream of men who would come knocking on the door looking for a hot meal or some work seemed almost commonplace. The family lived close to the train tracks, and DeArmond said her mother and grandmother, who lived with the family, would feed many in their kitchen. Her father, an attorney, labored to keep that food on the table.
“We lived on a tree-lined street,” DeArmond said. “We were insulated, I suppose, from what was going on in the nation. I never knew the troubles my father was having, making a living. I never felt deprived.”
Now 92, the daughter of a small-town lawyer describes her Christmases during the 1920s as simple, traditional and almost idyllic.
At age 7, little Mary Sheppard was enthralled by the silent movies that played on the silver screen and was able to read the subtitles to her younger brother, John. Because of her mother’s reputation as a musician, when the “talkies” came to town, the Sheppard family was given the bass drum that had been used in the theater during the silent movie days.
She and her older sister, Betty, learned to dance the Charleston in the living room of their home during the Roaring ’20s.
“We learned crazy little songs and danced until we couldn’t dance any more,” she said. “We were children and thought everything was fun.”
DeArmond’s father had a car, but no money for gas or travel. One of her fondest Christmas memories was a train ride to Kansas City, where she and her family would see the Christmas parade.
“One of my father’s clients was Missouri Pacific,” she said. “That was what enabled us to make that trip. It was so exciting for us kids.”
The Presbyterian Christmas program included a visit from Santa. He would call out the names of the children, and each would receive a brown paper sack with some ribbon candy, peanut brittle and chocolate-covered candy.
“I never really knew what they called those chocolate things,” DeArmond said, laughing. “But, we always hoped we would get an extra because they were so good.”
Then, on cue, DeArmond said, a big window would come down, and what appeared to be the head of a real deer poked its way through, signaling an end to the Christmas Eve program.
“Santa would say that he had to go,” she said. “I always thought it was a real reindeer, although I’m sure it was nothing more than a stuffed head of one.”
DeArmond, after she married, went to business school and worked as a legal secretary for several attorneys. At the age of 50, she decided she would go back to college and eventually received her degree from Missouri Southern State College, now known as Missouri Southern State University. She then received her master’s degree at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University and returned to MSSU, where she taught in the English department until she retired.
“My Christmas memories are not about the gifts, because whatever we might have received was usually something homemade and small,” she said. “No, I remember the wonderful traditions that surrounded our holidays. That, I think, is what Christmas was about.”
CAROL STARK is the editor of The Joplin Globe.
ON THE RADIO: “Happy Days Are Here Again”; “Stardust”; “Singin’ in the Rain.”
IN THE WHITE HOUSE: First lady Lou Henry Hoover established the custom of decorating an official tree in the White House — a tradition that has remained with the first ladies.
AT THE TOY STORE: The yo-yo was introduced to American children in 1929.