Never a lot, just closeness


December 24, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd.

One year, Emma Johnson got two dolls and a miniature tea set for Christmas.

It was one of her best Christmases ever.

She was 10 years old.

"Ohhh, yes, I'll never forget," she says chuckling with the memory, the excitement of that Christmas morning.

"My grandfather gave me a doll and then my parents gave me one, too. And then I got the little tea set and a little, miniature stove.

"I guess, what made it so special was that I had never gotten so many toys before," she says. "Kids today are a little bit spoiled. They get so many things and they get so many things all year long that Christmas doesn't seem as special as it did to us."

It makes a difference.

It is easy to believe in a Santa Claus, for instance, when the only time of the year you get toys is at Christmas. Johnson says she believed until she was 13 years old.

Emma Johnson is 53 years old now and lives in East Baltimore. She has four children, three little grandchildren, and a host of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews living in the area.

Over the years, she has seen easy Christmases and hard Christmases and what each of those holidays have taught her is that you take them as they come and make every one of them good.

"I tell my family -- especially in these hard times -- that you don't let things discourage you," says Johnson. "Like, if you lose your job, you don't give up and do alcohol or drugs. You go out and get another one. It might not be the one you want but at least it's something."

Johnson grew up with nine brothers and sisters on a small farm near Littleton, N.C., a small town near Rocky Mount. Her father was a sharecropper and the family lived in a log cabin with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing.

"But we really didn't know any better because everybody around us were living the same way," Johnson said.

The nation had just crawled out of the Great Depression and people back then were geniuses at making do with what they had.

At Christmas, her father would hike out into the forest and chop down a tree.

For decoration, her mother would pull apart cotton balls and hang the shreds on the branches to look like snow.

The children collected brightly colored leaves from the forest floor. They would pop homegrown popcorn and string it together. They would even decorate the tree with their father's old ties. Finally, they wrapped rocks in brightly colored paper and put them under the tree.

Meanwhile, Johnson's mother would be laboring over the wood stove days in advance of Christmas, cooking desserts from scratch: chocolate and coconut and custard cakes, which she ** would set out on a table, and make the children's mouths water.

Christmas dinner would be baked chicken, homemade potato salad and greens and it would rotate throughout the holiday season -- at one relative's home one evening and then at the home of another relative on the next.

"That's the funny thing, isn't it?" said Johnson. "I look back and it never seemed we had a lot. But somehow we always managed to be happy and close. That's another thing families miss these days."

Even so, Johnson is not romanticizing the past.

She left North Carolina to come to Baltimore in 1953, looking for work to help support her family. When she first got here, she worked for the housekeeping staff at Church Home Hospital, making about $400 a month. She sent half of her salary home.

But the thing is, she doesn't regret moving to the city and she doesn't long for the "good old days".

"Uh, uh. Life was too hard back then. I think I'd be very miserable if I had to go back.

"But the important thing -- and I try to make sure my children understand this -- is not to forget where you came from, not to forget that, although times may have been hard, people learned to make do with what they had."

It is an important thought for this holiday season.

Things may be tough now, but they've been tougher in the past.

And, if the recession forces us all to find a simpler, more family-oriented way of celebrating, well, then, we would not have suffered in vain.

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