The Best Things at Christmas Are Free

Greatest Generation parents taught this mom the value of hard work, sacrifice, patriotism — and it paid off

For those of us whose parents were members of the Greatest Generation, Christmas can be a challenging time. So instead of gussying up with pretend glitter and gloss, my husband and I have decided to face it head on — and find our own way to celebrate this special time of the year.

We have good memories, as older Americans, amid losses both expected and unexpected. Many of our generation have lost their parents. My husband’s parents and my own recently passed. My dad was 98 years old and served in the Army with distinction during World War II. My 93-year-old mom not only provided my sister and me with a lovely home, she worked for my dad’s successful insurance business as his accountant. Her claim to fame was beating the IRS — who audited my self-employed dad only to discover that every penny was accounted for and tax-compliant.

None of us expected to be coddled by the powers-that-be for “stressful” or “tragic” circumstances.

Looking back, they provided us with sound principles to live by as a result of surviving the trials and tribulations of the Great Depression and World War II. For example, the idea of living on credit was unthinkable. If we didn’t have the money to pay for something with cash, we did without. We learned the value of a dollar along with hard work and no handouts. We took to babysitting, mowing lawns, and shoveling snow for things we wanted to buy.

Not only were my parents can-do folks, they were fiercely patriotic. Every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, my dad (the only veteran on our tree-lined northern New Jersey street) raised the flag and raised his eyes to the heavens: “Don’t they know how lucky they are to live in this great country?”

Like my dad, my mother was a proud American housewife and mother, insisting on becoming a Girl Scout leader and taking part in the Memorial Day parade with her troop of girls in green uniforms, and hand-sewn, earned merit badges on bandoliers.

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Going from rags to riches, my parents accepted no excuses for becoming successful through hard work. My father never missed a day of work in his life. My mother was of the same mindset and heart. She slept little while keeping her pedal-run Singer sewing machine going full-tilt into the wee hours. She whipped up heavy drapes for the floor to ceiling windows, fine table cloths, upholstery for furniture, as well as all manner of clothing (including her own) — from our Sunday best to play clothes.

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When my mother did go shopping, we kids dragged behind — knowing the drill. She typically nit-picked and bartered her way with every merchant, store, and salesman to find the best deals, including her favorite haunts in New York City.

As many of our generation matured into young adults, we saw it as a privilege to attend college and graduate school while seeking professional degrees. Neither my husband nor I, as well as countless others, expected to be coddled by the powers-that-be for “stressful” or “tragic” circumstances. Not even in primary or secondary school were such services provided. From kindergarten on — we were expected to stand and deliver scholastically, good times or bad.

Many of us took our cue from our parents, and were committed to pursuing and living the American Dream with hard work no matter our race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status. If discriminated against, we took it on the chin or fought back for our rights.

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As we succeeded in our fields of endeavor, our accumulated wealth of a lifetime came to a screeching halt along with other Americans’ nationwide in 2008. That Christmas, my husband and I understood a part of what our parents endured during the Great Depression.

Though our second home in North Carolina was purchased outright with hard-earned cash, as real estate values plummeted we were among those who were compelled to sell for whatever we could get. And like many our age, jobs were nearly impossible to find, including anything in the professional fields in which we once excelled.

But we pushed on in the belief that with our investments, savings, and retirement via Social Security — like our parents and grandparents before us — all would be well.

Last year, I whipped up some crocheted shawls for the gals and infinity scarves for the guys.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Prices eventually skyrocketed for housing, food, medical care. Interest rates fell to an all-time low, and Social Security benefits were slashed across the board. As a result, we tightened our belts and eliminated all “extras” such as dining out, vacations, and pursuing such luxury items has a new car or TV.

Included in our belt-tightening efforts was our traditional Christmas celebrations in deck-the-halls style. It took time, but eventually we pulled ourselves up and out by refusing to let our reduced circumstances cramp our style. This Christmas, as in those before, we are committed to keeping our eyes on the prize — Our Lord’s miraculous birth, 2,000 years ago.

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We take evening walks holding hands while enjoying the Christmas decorations that light up our neighborhood. We visit a historic Catholic mission while lighting penny candles in solemn prayer. We purchase discounted Christmas cards to mail to those few who still appreciate receiving a physical missive. We play Christmas carols and burst into song when the mood strikes. And although my husband is tone-deaf, it raises a laugh, as the Brits would say.

And following my mother’s example of thrift and creativity, I continue my annual Christmas projects for the joy of making something lovely out of virtually nothing.  Last year, I whipped up some crocheted shawls for the gals and infinity scarves for the guys. This year, I decided to make crocheted bed spreads from carefully selected inexpensive yarns collected during the year for family and a few friends.

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Still, a Merry Christmas need not include any of these things. I have come to cherish love, hope, faith, and charity for new tomorrows. Because, as my ol’ dad reminds me to this day: Don’t ever give up. Remember who you are. And don’t forget, as the song says — “the best things in life are free.”    

The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, author, and columnist based in Arizona. 

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