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Residents and their children recall Christmas memories that echo across generations

When their children were small, assisted living residents Roger and Sandie Woley designed a simple code for Christmas presents.

Santa never wrapped,” explains their son David. “Santa didn’t have time to wrap because he flew all over the world.”

All of Santa’s gifts also came assembled, even bicycles and power wheels. It’s a tradition David has carried on with his own children.

“When you woke up in the morning, you walked out to the giant Christmas tree all lighted up, David said.

David received one of his favorite Christmas gifts when he was a teenager.

“I wanted a roll-around toolbox,” David said. “My parents kept saying, ‘We can’t afford one of those. Well, guess what? Christmas Day, I got one. I have no idea how they came up with the money, but it showed up.”

It was a gift with longevity: decades later, he still uses his Craftsman toolbox.

“My parents always made Christmas a ‘wow,’” David says, summing up how the holidays felt in the Woley household.

“I love my parents to death, and Christmas was always a big, big thing for the entire family.

“My parents always made it special. Even if they were having a rough year, there was always something there.”

One of Sandie’s favorite memories from her children’s childhood is the year “my son was a shepherd to my daughter the angel in the Christmas pageant,” she said.

As their children grew up and formed families of their own, the elder Woleys would host their children and grandchildren on Christmas Eve.

“I would cook a huge Christmas dinner, turkey and all the trimmings, served buffet-style,” Sandie said. She remembers the last Christmas she cooked for the family as her favorite Christmas ever.

After dinner, everyone exchanged gifts — “each one a treasure because they came from loved ones,” Sandie said.

“As a kid as well as an adult, Christmas has been a special time of year.”

***

Neva Madill, a resident of Independent Living at the Westerly, grew up on a farm outside a small town in Oklahoma. Not only was her mother widowed when she had four children under 8 years old, but the Great Depression made it a challenging time for everyone.

“Christmas was kind of slow,” Neva said.

An unmarried aunt always sent one gift for each child along with some oranges. Every other year, each child received a new pair of home-sewn pajamas.

One year, Neva’s aunt said she would give the children store-bought nightclothes.

“She gave me a nightgown,” Neva said. “I cried and cried and cried because I wanted PJs.”

Still, despite the scarcity of gifts and occasional disappointment, Christmas was not without its delights — in part because Neva’s mother was good at rationing.

“Mother was so good to help us save the sugar so we could make fudge, and we always had popcorn,” she said.

They would decorate a tree cut from the pasture with icicle ornaments.

“Mother always told us to put them on one at a time,” Neva said.

Neva’s daughter Cathy remembers receiving the same instructions at Christmastime when decorating their tree — a real one, just like when Neva was a child.

“Decorating the Christmas tree was a very big deal,” Cathy said. “We had popcorn and watched “The Wizard of Oz.”

On Christmas morning, “We would always wake up at 4 a.m.,” she said. “Instead of saying, ‘Shut up and go back to bed,’ Mom and Dad would start their day really early.”

Whoever woke up first would rouse the rest of the family with a beloved Christmas decoration: a wind-up tin Santa that rang a bell.

Cathy remembers receiving oranges and underwear for Christmas, and how unwrapping gifts made everything they received feel special. One year, she and Carol got Barbies, and after that their aunt would often give them custom-crocheted clothes for their dolls.

One of the most memorable gifts was prompted by a request from Carol.

“She is dog-crazy, and one Christmas she asked and asked for a dog,” Neva said. “She said all you have to do is put a bow around her neck and write, ‘To Carol, from family.’”

They adopted a dog from the pound and did just that. Chigger became a beloved family pet.

One year, Neva called to her daughters to the kitchen, urging them to hurry so they could see Santa Claus.

“We burned it up trying to get to the window,” said Cathy with a laugh. When they got there, their mom told them they’d just missed the jolly old elf.

Every Christmas after that, someone in the family has “seen” Santa.

Maybe some of the magic Neva conjured for her children had to do with her family’s Christmases when she was growing up.

“During the Depression, not many people had a good Christmas,” she said. “All the other kids were in the same boat.”

“Still, we were all happy and remembered the meaning of Christmas.”

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