Over the course of her 100 Christmases, Edith Bowers of Cleveland has observed all kinds of holiday celebrations - modest ones and lavish ones, small ones and large - through prosperous times and lean. As a great-great grandmother, she enjoys watching children open their gifts. But even in an age of abundance, she makes a case for holiday moderation.
Describing a scene typical of many American homes, she says in a voice that blends amazement with mild amusement, "Around the tree it looks just like a department store."
Every family has its own ideas about what constitutes a good Christmas. What one family considers lavish, another defines as normal. And what some consider simple, others regard as Spartan.
Even so, "a simple Christmas" remains an appealing idea. It suggests serenity, not to mention sensible spending, as family members focus more on traditions and togetherness than on the gifts under the tree. Yet simplicity is an idealized word these days, more feasible in theory than reality.
For those of earlier generations, like Mrs. Bowers, memories of childhood Christmases often involve only a few presents. Remembering simpler gifts and celebrations can still produce a warm glow more than half a century later. lt's enough to give comforting reassurance to 21st-century parents who face the nagging question on Dec. 24, "Have we bought enough presents?"
In Bowers's childhood home in Fall River, Mass., each child received one special gift. "I always wanted books," she says. "I was an avid reader." Yet what remains indelibly etched in her memory is a bright red sled with a pink cabbage rose. "That was the most beautiful sled in the world," she says. "But we didn't have a single flake of snow that year. I'd just go into the parlor and sit on the sled."
Music also played a big part in her life at Christmas. Her soprano mother and baritone father both sang, and church choirs went caroling. "Christmas music is extremely meaningful," she says.
Mildred Lovins of Lexington, Ky., a teacher for more than 40 years, grew up during the Depression. Although her father worked, his salary grew smaller and smaller. "We all had one gift at Christmas," she says. "I got a doll. It came with a blanket and a diaper. That gift was a biggie for me. I kept that doll for a long, long time."
Her family enjoyed cutting a small cedar for a Christmas tree and trimming it with lights, a few favorite balls, and homemade decorations. "I have very happy memories of Christmas," Mrs. Lovins says. "I really don't think I was deprived."
For John Violanti, a professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, the best Christmas gift came in 1948, when he was 5. His father was in the Navy, and his mother worked in a factory riveting car mirrors for 32 cents an hour. Money was tight.
When his kindergarten teacher learned that his mother couldn't afford a Christmas tree, she gave him the class tree to take home the last day before Christmas vacation. His mother had no car, and they couldn't take it on the bus. So they dragged the tree to their apartment, resting every few steps to catch their breath.
"Mom and I spent the rest of the day decorating the tree," Mr. Violanti says. "I cut out ornaments from red and green colored paper and pasted them together. Mom bought some tinsel. We didn't have lights for the tree, but that didn't matter. A simple act of love by a teacher brought the joy of Christmas to my family."
For Phoebe Brown of Overland Park, Kan., the best Christmas grew out of her parents' limited means during the Depression. When she was about 9, she came home from school one day to find newspapers spread on the floor. Without explaining why, her mother asked her to lie down so she could trace around her.
"I thought it was so odd," Mrs. Brown recalls.
On Christmas, she received a Raggedy Ann doll. It was about her size, with orange yarn hair, black button eyes, a white pinafore over a print dress, and striped stockings.
"We didn't have an awful lot to work with then. We couldn't afford to buy a doll, so my mother made one," she says. "I lugged that doll around way after I got taller than it was - probably until I was 12."
Alden Smith still displays two favorite Christmas toys from the 1920s in his apartment in Cleveland, a Buddy L fire truck and a steam shovel. In the early 1930s, he received a Flexible Flyer sled with "super steering."
But one of his most enduring holiday memories involves not toys but a charitable act. When he was a young teen, his Boy Scout troop delivered Christmas baskets to the poor. "I will never forget some of the homes we entered," Mr. Smith says. "They were sparsely furnished, and the children were poorly clothed. The people received us with great appreciation. That day has left an indelible impression on me. I shall never forget Christmas that year."
When Eulalia Fox of York, Neb., was growing up, her father worked for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad in Seward, Neb. Every year around Thanksgiving, the railroad laid off all bridge and building workers. The union would then send her father a big box of food.
When she was about 11, the box was late. Finally, just before Christmas, it arrived, filled with canned goods and staples.
"That box of food in 1931 was the best Christmas present my little brother, Larry, and I ever got," Mrs. Fox says.
For Christmas, she and her siblings each received a small gift, such as a pencil box.
Despite the simplicity, "we had fun," she says. "Dad usually played his fiddle, and we kids could play the spoons or the comb and tissue paper. If we lived in a town with a church, we all went to church at midnight after a big oyster soup supper."
In Island Falls, Maine, where Philip Stockford grew up, winters were long and snow was typically three or four feet deep in the woods. No wonder, perhaps, that he calls the set of red bobsleds an uncle gave him for Christmas in the early 1930s "the high point in my childhood."
Mr. Stockford, now of Warwick, R.I., also fondly describes "the great sociability of the holiday table," with aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered around. While they were seated, his mother would read the Christmas story from the Bible.
Summing up the value of family gatherings such as these in her own childhood, Bowers says, "We were so very fortunate. My adored grandparents lived right around the corner. When it came Christmas, we'd all get together. You cannot replace the closeness and love of a family with things. Christmas is not things."
Is there a better definition of holiday simplicity?