Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott looks through old newspapers to find some truly strange, unusual—and sometimes heartwarming—presents given during past Christmases.
I always feel extra thankful around Christmastime that I am a genealogist. It is the best time to be with, and think about, family. Of course some of the most fun memories that always come flooding back are those of giving and receiving Christmas presents!
I grew up with many Christmas family traditions handed down from my Czech ancestors. I fondly recall that we always celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6th and that Santa Claus always brought our Christmas tree along with our gifts on Christmas Eve after we fell asleep listening for sleigh bells in the night. Now as an adult, I can hardly imagine how much work my parents must have done those late Christmas Eve nights…putting out packages, assembling toys, AND decorating a full Christmas tree. But, I certainly recall that those Christmas mornings were magical, seeing the tree for the first time with all those gifts for us kids under it.
Speaking of Christmas gifts, I remember being thrilled and amazed at what I found under the tree with my name on it! These fond family memories and my genealogy work got me to thinking about what presents other people might have found under their Christmas trees, so I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for a bit of fun to see what I might find.
The Elephant in the Yard
My first discovery, from a 1985 South Dakota newspaper, was a “white elephant” gift: literally, an elephant. It seems a certain Marie Christianson, of Apple Valley, Minnesota, woke to find an eight-foot-tall fiberglass elephant on her front lawn! Now, my family will tell you I have “missed” on more than one gift over the years, but at least I never tried giving anything that big!
A Gold-Dipped Cow Chip
Next up I just had to read an article I found in a 1980 Texas newspaper, since it was headlined “Oh, just what I always wanted…a gold cow chip.” No kidding! This strange story leads with the opportunity to buy, for only $125, a gold-dipped cow chip made into a Christmas ornament, and it didn’t stop there. The article also reports on such gifts as cow chip drink coasters, a “hospital booze” dispenser, and other strange gifts. As the reporter comments: “But, of course, with Christmas gifts, like anything else—beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The Worst Christmas Gifts Ever
Then I came across a 1975 article from a Texas newspaper titled “Christmas gifts. Everything they never wanted.” It seems that the UPI undertook a survey to find some of the worst Christmas gifts ever. Right up there at the top was the WWII GI who was fighting in the mud of the western Pacific when he received his Christmas gift: a shoe shine kit! That one really had me laughing, as did several of the others as the UPI interviewed a host of big-name celebrities including Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, David Niven and others. While I laughed over gifts such as Carol Burnett’s “a case of chicken pox” and shuddered over Phyllis Diller getting a snake, the gift that took the cake for me was Stanley Marcus, of the Neiman-Marcus Department Store chain. It seems his children couldn’t figure out what to give the man that probably literally had everything, so they gave him a live donkey for Christmas!
Oh! It’s Moleskin Pants…Again
The laughter really rolled around my office when I came across a real “winner” of a Christmas gift in a 1984 Massachusetts newspaper article. This one makes me wonder if the genealogy and family history of Roy Collette of Owatonna, Minnesota, will include his Christmas gift of a pair of moleskin pants. It seems Roy and his brother-in-law gift and re-gift the same pair of moleskin pants each Christmas. In the article, Roy tells the story that it took him two months to unwrap his Christmas present of those pants since his brother-in-law, Larry Kunkel, sent them wrapped “cemented in a 12,000-pound, 17-foot-high red space ship”! Can you imagine? The two of them had been exchanging this same pair of pants, wrapped in various zany ways, since the mid-1960s.
The Real Santa of Danby & Mount Tabor
Soon I found a heartwarming article from a 1983 Louisiana newspaper, which told the story “Christmas legacy continues” from the small towns of Danby and Mount Tabor, Vermont. It seems a local boy, who made a fortune in the lumber trade, never forgot his hometown. When Silas Griffith died in 1903, his will set up an endowment to buy Christmas gifts each year for all the boys and girls in the towns of Danby and nearby Mount Tabor. This old newspaper article begins with a 75-year-old fellow recalling “washtubs full of large, juicy oranges” beneath the Griffith endowment tree as holiday gifts. William Crosby comments: “In those days, an orange was a pretty scarce item. It meant an awful lot to me.” That one really took me back, since every year when I was a child, year in and year out, my Christmas stocking held an orange in the toe as a very special winter treat. I can still taste the marvelous flavors as my sisters and I would stick a peppermint stick into the orange and drink the juice through our makeshift straws. Christmas magic indeed.
The Red Cross Delivers a Great Gift
Tears formed in my eyes as I read the next article I came across, titled “The Funny Christmas Gift,” from a 1918 Pennsylvania newspaper. This news story was incredibly moving to me, especially as we approach the centennial of World War I. If you want to truly get into the Christmas spirit and have immigrant ancestors in your genealogy as my family does, you must read this great story about a gift both simple and hugely meaningful. The story is told by a Red Cross worker who is helping process packages to troops overseas during WWI, and concludes this way:
Remember Rural Free Delivery?
Things got lighter after this when I found myself reading an article from a 1905 Pennsylvania newspaper, titled “Christmas with the Rural Free Delivery Carriers.” Now if you are old enough to recall sending mail with an address that featured “R.F.D.” in it, then you will really enjoy this wonderful trip back in time. This one is almost like having your own genealogy time machine! Be sure to check it out and read about what these wonderful rural carriers got from their appreciative customers around Christmastime. It was special to read how these fellows often received “potatoes, flour, apples, preserves, etc., in such quantities that the family is kept supplied with these things all winter in this manner.”
Strange Christmas Presents of the Rich & Famous
I was especially intrigued when I came across an article from a 1909 Louisiana newspaper, titled “Some Queer Christmas Presents.” This story tells of many gifts received by actors and actresses at Christmas, and I was pleased to see that several had been given bricks from a building that was significant in their lives.
I was given a brick once, as you can see in the photograph below. While it may not be from an opera house or famous theater, mine is from a community center in a small village in Michoacán, Mexico, that I was instrumental in getting built. I do believe that, as the earlier reporter noted, the beauty of a gift truly is in the eye of the beholder.
What have been some of your favorite, strange, or outrageous Christmas gifts in your family? Please tell us about them in the comments section.