The Crusader Newspaper Group

Christmas was always special in Gary—even without “stuff”

Most of us didn’t have much growing up. The Sears department store was wonderland in the minds of children. The winding tracks with Lionel trains chugging along, the wide-eyed dolls in decorative dress, the shiny fire trucks, battleships and easy bake ovens fascinated young hearts.

For many of us, those fanciful displays were as close as we would come to the name brand toys seen on television. Gary was a city of working-class families, the majority linked in one way or another to steel gushing mills lining the lakeshore.

Those hard hats worked for a few cents on the dollar per hour in an era that preceded pay by union scales. The brutal necessity of making ends meet required overtime, turning an exhausting eight-hour shift into 16 hours of labor, only to go home then return after a brief respite to endure another shift.

Economic challenges of most families in Gary’s midtown district were compounded by the number of children in each household. The Reese family had   around 14. The Nichols’ family on Madison had 11. The Jacksons crammed nine children into their tiny abode. I was the last of 10 in the Williams’ household.

But here is how we grew up.

Clothes could be “hand-me-downs,” but your mama kept them clean and pressed. Sometimes cardboard had to cushion your feet from that frigid Northwest Indiana winter ground when there was a hole in the sole. A family meal at Burger Chef or The Lure was a luxury. We ate at home.

We played baseball in the alley, kick-the-can on the sidewalk, jumped rope and played hopscotch, tossed footballs in the street, raced around the block, skated everywhere we found pavement, glided down hillsides on sleds, played with marbles in the dirt, shot bad guys with cap guns and air rifles.

We learned to make the most out of whatever we had.

The magic of Christmas was never marred by what we didn’t have, especially when most kids on the block were in the same shape. Even when most gifts were socks or shirts or when toys had to be shared with my brother, reflections on the Yuletide remind us: it’s a wonderful life!

We were anything but poor. As the saying goes, you can’t miss what you never had. And most Christmas mornings brought at least one or two new cherished items and that was enough, in a period before children were lavished with material things all year round, like today.

The enduring joy of the season evolved into more heartfelt exultation of the birth of Jesus. In time, we came to appreciate the spiritual essence more and more with each passing year of maturation and spiritual growth. Suddenly, there was transformation from “what you get” for Christmas to how much more can you give.

Countless school, church, government, community and organizational charities perform exemplary services to make sure children won’t go hungry this weekend, or lack toys, or face the elements without shelter. All these generous souls deserve an ovation for their tenacity and generosity.

This holiday season, through it all, strive to include the most precious of gifts, that is, knowledge of the reason for the season. 

Model that spirit that sustained us as children even if we were predominantly “have nots.” Instill the enduring treasure of character and lay a foundation of integrity with love as the cornerstone.

All praises to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Merry Christmas!

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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