Appalachia Christmas

A Hardscrabble Christmas

Today’s guestpost was written by Renea Winchester.

A Hardscrabble Christmas
A Hardscrabble Christmas
Stories from a Georgia Sharecropper
As told by: Billy Albertson
Written by: Renea Winchester

In the late 1930s, strip malls didn’t exist in rural America. There were no Secret Santa’s, no Elf on a Shelf, no white elephant gift exchanges; but Christmas came nonetheless.

Born to Egbert Tabor Albertson and Ola Belle Etris Albertson on March 31, 1932, Billy Albertson knew about hard work and hard times. Christmas trees weren’t purchased from a commercial grower. Finding a tree was a family affair. “Momma and Poppa and us kids lit out in search of a tree. After everyone decided on the right one, Poppa chopped it down with an axe and we drug it home. Didn’t cut one till the week before Christmas, lest the pine needles dried out and fell off. Poppa nailed the tree to a stand, one that was made from planks he fashioned together in the shape of an x. Back then we had us a big old field of corn, had plenty. We popped that corn and strung it on the tree. That’s all we had for ornaments. Weren’t no lights on our ole pine tree, didn’t have ‘leck-tricity.”

The Albertson home of the late 30s and early 40s was what most would call a shack. Sharecroppers moved often and lived in whatever building was located on the land they farmed. When Billy was almost eight-years-old, his family lived with Mr. Lee Pitchford who owned a dairy farm in North Georgia. Later, Billy’s Poppa found Guy Staton who owned a larger farm in the Clairmont Community. Billy remembers that “Poppa sharecropped for thirty years,” before ultimately settling down in what Billy still calls the “Birmingham Community,” (present-day Milton, Georgia).

Regardless of where the Albertson’s lived, the homes were usually the same. Ramshackle, rickety shelters held together with gumption, hard work, and a whole lotta love.

According to Billy, “There weren’t no insulation . . . our houses weren’t tight. The old farmhouse wasn’t much. Lotsa times it wasn’t even sealed on the inside. You could see daylight coming in through cracks in the wall, look down at the floor and see the chickens scratching under the porch. Landowners supplied the tools and the mule, then took half of what we made except what we growed in our garden spot.”

Back when winters were cold, snow fell so deep that Billy’s Poppa hitched the mule to a terracing drag and cut a path to the woodshed, to the privy, to the barn. (A terracing drag is a v-shaped plow that is used to keep rainwater from flooding the garden, and in this case, cleared a walkway to outbuildings). Chores required attention regardless of weather. Kids hurried to complete their assigned duties while hoping the snow would yield a tasty treat known as snow cream.

“We’d make snowmans but didn’t own no sled. They cost money, if you could even get one back then. We looked forward to snow. Sometimes Momma scooped it up and added vaniller flavoring and some sugar. That made the first ice cream I ever ate. Boy, it shore was good. Of course we hunted Mistletoe,” Billy continued. “It was hard to find, but Poppa would shoot it down then we’d hang it in the house. The girls would walk under it and we’d kiss ‘em. I believe that was the way it went.” Billy’s laughter bounced off the tiny walls of his living room.

Christmas Eve found the young Albertson children peeling socks from their feet to hang by the chimney with care. Out of eleven children, Billy was number ten. Each of the seven siblings who were still at home used a single sock as a stocking; the others were married, starting a family of their own.

“We’d hang a sock on the fireboard, most folk these days call it a mantle, but we called it a fireboard.

Come morning, if we had an orange, or an apple, and a piece of peppermint in our sock, we knowed old Santa Claus had been there.”

There were no other gifts. No X-Box360 or iPhones. No battery-operated toys that would be broken and discarded the next day; only a single piece of fruit and peppermint candy. Christmas feasts at the Albertson home were sparse when compared to the gluttony of today. There were no cookie exchanges, no pesky fruit cakes, no tins filled with aromatic rum balls, and certainly no roast beast, but the tradition of fruit in stockings continued even when Billy became a father.

As one might expect, peanuts were as common for Billy as chocolate is for us today. “Momma always had peanuts roasting by the fireplace. She made peanut brittle for Christmas. Poppa would take any excess from our garden, like beans or peas, and he’d swap them for pinto beans, maybe a hundred pound bag if we were lucky. We also ate a lot of kraut and hominy. You use dried corn to make hominy. See, the kernels of Silver King is real big. We’d take the wash pot outside and gather all the sticks and twigs we could find to build up a fire. Momma’d get the ashes from the fireplace and pour them in the water. You boil that with the corn. The ashes helped the husks slide off, can’t make hominy without them.”

I didn’t ask, but I suspect with eleven children to raise Momma Albertson found it easier to cook most large meals outside. However, pintos were cooked over the fireplace.

“Momma cooked the pinto beans in a cast-iron pot with three legs on the bottom. She put the pot in the fireplace where it was good and hot then heaped coals on top so all the beans inside would cook.”

By age six, Billy Albertson was wishing for a pocketknife something fierce; one with a chain attached so he could clip the knife to his belt loop or overalls. But the knife cost twenty-five cents, and twenty-five cents was hard to come by back then. He’d wished for a knife the previous year only to receive another orange and a stick of peppermint. Billy was almost eight-years-old when Santa granted his wish. “I was so happy. I thought the world of that knife,” Billy said. “And I took care of it.”

As the Albertson family became more self-sufficient, clothes became Christmas presents. “Momma made all of our clothes. She’d make the girls’ dresses for Christmas, made us boys little shirts and pants. One year she sewed me some short pants. I despised them.” Billy laughed. “I did. I despised them. I didn’t like them at-tall. She made the girls’ dresses from chicken feed sacks or dairy sacks and made Poppa’s work shirts out of fertilizer sacks. Back then, fertilizer came in cloth bags with 6-8-6 printed on the outside of the bag. The material was heavy and the numbers 6-8-6 was the analysis of the fertilizer. Momma’d wash the sacks out real good and sew Poppa’s shirt. When he wore it you could see real plain the 6-8-6 in red letters across the back of the shirt.”

“Did you ever remember your Momma getting a present?” I asked.

“No,” he said with tears in his eyes. “No. I don’t. Poppa, he got work shirts.”

Churches had sprung up in the Birmingham community. Billy attended Christmas services in 1945 at the Liberty Grove Baptist Church in Alpharetta where the sound of a piano and old-timey gospel music filled the air. Members put on a play complete with shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and a Baby Jesus. The church still stands today, alive and active as a testament that some things won’t change.

In the 60s, life was still rural. Billy and his wife Marjorie were settled down on Hardscrabble Road. They’d broken ground on their own homestead and were living in the house even though it wasn’t finished. “Now we didn’t have no mortgage,” Billy said. “Just worked on the place a little bit at a time, you know, as we could afford it.”

Developers hadn’t discovered this part of farm country, hadn’t begun building gated communities and a drugstore on every corner. At night, one could sit outside and look up at the stars that were too numerous to count. After moving around most of his life, Billy made a promise to The Man Upstairs.

“I says, ‘Lord, if you give me a good place to live I promise I’ll stay put.’”

He kept that promise. After fifty years of living on Hardscrabble Road he has no plans on breaking his promise to The Man Upstairs.

Time slipped through Billy’s fingers just as it does for each of us. Today, at age eighty-one, fond memories of Christmases past fill his simple home located on Hardscrabble Road.


I hope you enjoyed Billy’s Christmas memories as much as I did! Renea has written an entire book about her relationship with Billy- In the Garden with Billy. The book is available on: or through Renea’s website.


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  • Reply
    james gentry
    December 26, 2013 at 2:55 pm


  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    December 25, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Amazing story. Thank you for reminding us that Christmas comes to all, no matter their standing in this world.

  • Reply
    Ferne K
    December 25, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Great Christmas stories, Tipper. Thanks for sharing them and for reminding all of us about what’s really important this time of year. Merry Christmas to everyone.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    December 24, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    Another wonderful story. Billy’s mother reminds me of my mother who always put her children’s needs or wants above her own. I know my mother did without things in order to give us what she could.
    Merry Christmas Tipper to you and your family.
    May God bless each of you in the coming year.
    Thank you for all the work you do in sharing wonderful stories, thoughts and ideas.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    December 24, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Wonderful story! So touching to think of Billy’s eyes filling up when asked what presents his Mother had received and he said she never had none. To think of a woman working so hard to see her children and husband had what they NEEDED while saving nothing for herself is how mamas use to be.
    Doesn’t seem to be many mamas like that anymore.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    renea w
    December 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you Tipper for sharing my Christmas story. And thank you so much to everyone who read it. Your comments warmed my heart. Truly they were a gift today. I am so blessed.

  • Reply
    Joy Newer
    December 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Loved every story, brought back precious memories. MERRY CHRISTMAS Tipper To YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.
    Joy Newer

  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    December 24, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story and sweet memories. They take me back to those cherished Christmas’s many years ago. We woke up to an apple and orange if we were lucky and felt rich as a king. I just posted one a week or so ago on my blog about my Christmas memories. Love these stories. Merry Christmas Tipper to you and your family and all the Blind Pig Readers.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    December 24, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    I just loved this Christmas Story
    by Renea Winchester. So many of the
    hardships endured by Family members
    are a part of my memories too.
    Merry Christmas everyone!…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 24, 2013 at 11:41 am

    For many years Renea’s Grandfather Frank and his brother Fred operated a country store at Lauada and then later at Jackson Line. Both locations became the center of the community. Local folks walked or drove there to purchase a few staples when they ran out.
    “Like a convenience store.” you say. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. People really went there to see and be seen. To swap stories, knives, hound dogs and guns. They went to catch up on the latest community news as The Smoky Mountain Times only came out once a week. Somebody could have died and been buried before you knew about. They went to entertain and be entertained. They brought their guitars, banjos, fiddles, harmonicas and jaw harps. They brought their voices and their ears.
    There were benches outside along the store front. The “you move you lose” rule was always in effect. In the colder months there was an old wood heater inside circled by straight chairs. The rule was the same except the pickers got seats if they needed them. Spit cans were prevalent in both venues, kept under the seating if you were lucky enough to sit. From time to time an old codger might lift the lid on the old stove and spew forth a stream of rich brown juice right into the fire.
    Why am I writing this? Because Renea didn’t, at least not yet!

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    December 24, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Although I seldom comment, I read the Blind Pig each day. Some say that I live in paradise. Maybe so, but the stories of life in North Carolina speak to me. Here’s wishing Tipper, her family and all the readers of Blind Pig a very Merry Christmas.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 24, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Such a strong story. I remember the same tree stand Billy speaks a7.

  • Reply
    Marc Kruger
    December 24, 2013 at 9:29 am

    What a truly wonderful story and an inspiration for appreciating all that we now have. As a child, my early years were spent living in a project in New Jersey. These row homes were built to house ship yard workers during WWII. Later when I was 13, we moved into the country and had no running water or electricity until 1958. We did not have the material things, but we had 80 acres of woods to explore and Christmas was always a great family time. Few gifts, but the food was good and family games were fun.

  • Reply
    December 24, 2013 at 9:21 am

    What a touching reminder of days gone by – and so beautifully written! Thanks for this story on Christmas Eve.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 24, 2013 at 9:17 am

    and Renea…wonderful story.
    Even though we would liked for Billys mother to have received a present wrapped in paper or in her stocking…I am sure she would wonder why in the world we would feel sorry for her! As a Mother I am sure her greatest gift was to see her children happy and to be able to give even a small gift to them and see their smiles on Christmas morning. Even though, she knew her boy, was not going to especially like those shorts…or the number would be showing on the back of her husbands shirt!
    I keep remembering that it is better to give than receive and I think that all said and done, it is a much happier feeling, for my ownself anyway, to give than to receive! Just a all over good feelin’!
    Like feeding your family, seems like Mama was the last one to sit down at the table! LOL
    Thanks Tipper,
    and Renea…
    PS..Very cold here this morning,
    It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    December 24, 2013 at 9:15 am

    you are the second person to recommend this book — I had one yesterday, too. I must read it. Happy Christmas Eve — I’ll bet you’ll have music. xoxo

  • Reply
    December 24, 2013 at 8:40 am

    I really enjoyed reading this story of life way back. Christmas, I will admit, has become such a business profit. Many young people forget the true reason for Christmas. I, myself, have some fond memories of early Christmases in my childhood. We lived in a big city, but money was tight, so we were pleased with what we received. Merry Christmas to all!

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    December 24, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Billy’s “Hardscrabble Christmas” was much like my own–except that my father owned his own farm and we didn’t have to move about from house to house. Every want was given special attention, but we soon learned that not every wish could be fulfilled. Sometimes even Santa Claus did not have the wherewith to fulfill every boy and girl’s wish list. But we had wonderful Christmases despite our poverty (that we did not know we had!). On this Christmas Eve, may we prepare our hearts and exemplify the true spirit of Christmas!

  • Reply
    December 24, 2013 at 8:12 am

    The stories which have been shared the last few days are good reads. They share elements of my parents’ stories, and a bit of my own life – – just goes to prove folks’ experiences in this old world are more alike than different.
    If you’d like another perspective on “hardscrabble”, John Graves, a Texas writer, wrote ‘Hardscrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land’. That’s another good read.

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    December 24, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Beautiful. I am familiar with that neck of the woods and have watched it change through the years.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    December 24, 2013 at 7:34 am

    Another great story, Tipper! I really enjoyed this. These stories that you are sharing around Christmas show how families manage to make Christmas special, even if they don’t have abundant resources. My 90-year-old Dad remembers with fondness his childhood Christmases with oranges, English walnuts and hard candy in the stocking. I wonder how many kids who reach the age of 90 will be able to feel the same way about their XBoxes or iPhones.

  • Reply
    December 24, 2013 at 7:21 am

    Lovely story. Merry Christmas to Billy. Thanks for sharing his story Renea and Tipper.
    Merry Christmas to all!

  • Reply
    Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen
    December 24, 2013 at 6:36 am

    What touching memories of Christmas past. I remember the stories my parents told me of the Depression. Many great folks came from hard times.
    Merry Christmas Tipper to you and your family.

  • Reply
    December 24, 2013 at 6:11 am

    When Billy said with tears in his eyes that he didn’t remember Momma ever getting a present just about took me out.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    December 24, 2013 at 5:50 am

    Renea & Tipper: Thanks for the heart-felt post today. Billy’s CHRISTMAS MEMORIES bring back to me our Christmas times in the Matheson Cove. I don’t know how our family of eleven children ALL survived those harsh winters. I guess the faith and prays Mama and Daddy prayed ‘to the MAN upstairs’helped us along the way.
    Kindest regards,
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    Author: “Fiddler of the Mountains” 2013 “The Matheson Cove” 2007

  • Reply
    December 24, 2013 at 5:50 am

    Thank you Billy and Renea for a great story! Do you think Billy would trade his Hardscrabble Christmases now? I think the hard times a family goes through during their lives is what makes their love strong! This was great; thanks so much for this. This type of story could dehydrate a fellow, if you know what I mean!

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