The childhood days of Christmas are long spent for 99-year-old Virginia Burkett, 90-year-old Betty Land and the baby of the group, 88-year-old Mary Greene. Their memories, as sharp as ever, still bring a sparkle to their eyes.
Vibrant residents of Trinity Village Retirement Community, the women are neighbors now. But they grew up in different towns, each having a different family dynamic. Born in 1914, 1923 and 1925, they lived some of their most impressionable years during the Great Depression.
What they learned in their homes, surrounded by family, and in the community about Christmas during extreme economic times has left them with many treasured memories.
Greene, a former entrepreneur, was co-owner of Kiddie Land, an amusement park in Oakland Park (now Martin Luther King Jr. Park) from 1963-1975. After closing the business, she became the assistant manager for S&H green stamps for Simmons First National Bank until she retired in 1989.
The second oldest of four children, Greene grew up in Jonesboro with her parents and three brothers.
“There wasn’t much,” she said.
Her father, who had worked for the railroad, was laid off but found work at a basket factory to make ends meet.
“We each got one present,” she said.
Without hesitation she added: “But, there was so much love.”
The family Christmas tree, retrieved from the woods, was decorated with handmade ornaments.
“They were made from paper, mostly,” Greene said. “We would look through the pages of a catalog and find a pretty page and cut it out.”
For dinner, Greene said, “We had chicken and dressing — never turkey, because Mother liked the flavor of chicken better — and green beans. She would make banana pudding too, but my favorite was sweet potatoes and marshmallows.”
Greene said they didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve like some families.
“We lived so far in the country … too far to walk and Daddy didn’t have a car.”
But at home, worship was the centerpiece of their celebration.
“Although things were scarce,” Greene said, “we were believers, and learned early to worship Jesus and it has stayed with me all my life.”
Greene said she was proud of her mother because she also demonstrated her faith by helping people.
“We would have all kinds of people come for dinner, people who lived on the street, or anybody who needed a helping hand.” Greene said “And it didn’t matter what color. Back then, color mattered to some, but not at our house.”
That experience, Greene said, taught her that Jesus loves everybody. Greene said people have gotten away from celebrating Christmas the way the Bible says.
“It’s a detriment,” she said. “We need to remember it’s not about the gifts; it’s about the birth of Jesus. It’s about love.”
Land, originally from Alton, Ill., relocated to Pine Bluff three years ago to be near her daughter. A former guidance counselor who is full of energy, she still has plenty of advice.
Until she was 5 or 6 years old, Land said, “Christmas was about Santa Claus.
She spent hours amusing herself thumbing through the Christmas catalog, making her wish list.
“Most all people could do was wish back then.” Land said.
Land, who grew up an only child, said her memories of Christmas are not much different than today — she and her parents had a store-bought tree and ornaments and a family meal complete with pumpkin pie for dessert. She didn’t have a favorite.
“I enjoyed it all,” Land said.
The only difference between then and now, according to Land, is that Christmas has lost it’s simplicity.
“In this country, the population is changing in beliefs and in their concerns about religion which creates a vacuum in trying to maintain the spiritual value of Christmas,” she said.
Land said things have become too commercialized and that “people act as if the more money is spent the better.”
She said most people are not wealthy, and Christmas has become overwhelming for parents who can’t afford a lot and disheartening for their children.
“It creates an emptiness.” she said.
Even for those who get lots of gift she said, “once the day is gone, it’s all about what I got or didn’t get, or being unhappy because even though I got something, I don’t like it.”
Land said Christmas is “not about spending lots of money.”
Burkett is the middle child of six children who grew up with her parents in Newport. Before retirement, she kept books for her husband in their wholesale produce business.
Their family Christmases involved the entire church community. Families gathered their children and gifts and met at the church on Christmas Eve to open presents together.
The first gift she remembers getting is a doll — but not just any doll.
“It was a China doll. Burkett said proudly. “I liked to dress and undress it.”
Burkett said she learned to be unselfish at a young age. One year, she got the doll and her sister got the cradle.
“We shared our toys; it was no problem,” Burkett said.
If she had a chance to tell people what Christmas is about, Burkett said she would say, “It has become more about people and receiving gifts.”
Instead she said, “It is a day of the birth of Jesus, as a babe in a manger. He grew up and became a minister to all people and had to die on a cross for our sins.”
More than the gifts, Burkett, whose grandfather was a Methodist minister, treasures the times she spent listening to her mother read Christmas stories to the family.
“That’s how we learned the true meaning of Christmas.” she said.