Flanagan Memories: Providing Christmas Without Letting The Kids Know They Were Poor

Uncle sitting on his “new” Christmas bike, with Grandpa .

I grew up with the best grandparents a kid could want. They spoiled us with little gifts, and they spoiled us even more with love and attention. I still miss them, especially around the holidays.

During interviews with my mom over the years, about her childhood and what she knows about her parents’ early lives, one comment stands out in my mind more than anything else. Mom says they (the kids) never knew that their family was poor, until they grew up. Grandma and Grandpa worked hard to hide their financial hardships and worries from their children. Especially at Christmas.

Going through old family Christmas photos this week, I came across one particular photo that always chokes me up. It’s a picture of my Grandfather, Michael John Flanagan, and his youngest child, my uncle. They are posed in front of the family Christmas tree, Grandpa (ignore the scowl, he always looked grumpy in photos even though he was full of laughter) is standing next to my Uncle, who is sitting on a new bike and wearing a big smile. The reason this photo always gets to me is because, as Mom explains, Uncle’s “new” bike really wasn’t new. There was no way Grandma and Grandpa could afford a new one. It was actually a girl’s used bike disguised as a boy’s new bike. Grandpa worked at a company that made tubing out of steel, so he used some steel tubing and turned it into a boys bike and repainted it for my Uncle.

Grandma and Grandpa lived for loving their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It must have torn them up not to be able to provide brand new bikes at Christmas. So, instead, these two Depression-era children learned how to improvise and still lavish their own children with gifts and attention. My mom, as well as my aunts and my uncle, all seem to have such fond memories of their childhood Christmases.

A Christmas Memory From Mom 

After coming across that photo of my Grandpa and Uncle again, I emailed my mom yesterday asking her what sorts of other things Grandma and Grandpa did for them to make it special for the kids when they had little or no extra money to spend on Christmas.

Mom always made clothes for each of us and clothes for our dolls every year. Every year we got new pajamas. All of our gifts were inexpensive things like games (new sets of jacks, jump ropes, crayons and coloring books, paper dolls and a few board games). Back then, other than the year all of us girls got bikes there was never a big gift for any of us, and we never as little children made a Christmas list. The year we all got bikes I think they were used bikes that Dad repainted and cleaned up. What made Christmas special was that Mom & Dad spent the entire day playing with us. We never had a big dinner that required them to spend the day cooking instead they would cook a ham and we would eat ham sandwiches on Christmas.

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