In Celebration of Modest Christmases Past When families had less, when America had less, a single gift could make a lasting impression.

A long time ago in a country far, far away, America had less of everything and holidays were easier and more modest.

Only 50 and 60 years ago, well within human memory, Christmas was a plainer, simpler affair. Everyone—even the rich, but certainly the poor and in-between—had less. Because America had less. You’d get a sweater and socks instead of five toys, or five toys instead of 10. Technology was something that existed at places like NASA. No one’s wish list had a hoverboard, an iPad, or a brightly wrapped drone. There were more big families, whose children understood that even Santa couldn’t cover them all.

You could make gifts. Or you could buy one after saving up, and the recipient could guess the sacrifice involved. And because there were fewer gifts, the one you got made a big impression.

Christmas TreeAnd so a nod to the more modest Christmases of years past. These memories came with a declared or implied, “We didn’t have much, but . . .” And this was said not with resentment or self pity but a kind of pride and wistfulness.

For the New York businessman Vin Pica, one Christmas stands out. “All I wanted was a wooden Daniel Boone ‘musket,’ ” he says, like the one Fess Parker slung over his shoulder as he walked through the woods. “I mentioned it at dinner Christmas Eve, and my father mysteriously disappeared, and magically, the next morning, on Dec. 25, 1959, it was under the tree . . .”

Here is a friend of mine, from a large Irish Catholic family in New Jersey—seven kids, no money. She is in her 60s now, but still shy about revisiting those days. She doesn’t recall any specific gifts she received—“It wasn’t like we were going to get a smartphone, it wasn’t like that”—but she remembers the time the baby of the family, Cathy, age 5, let everyone know Santa was going to give her something very special.

But Cathy wouldn’t tell anyone what it was. On Christmas Eve, her resourceful mother finally told her to write Santa a thank-you note and put it under the tree. She did, and later her mother peeked at the note: Cathy thanked Santa for the “bride doll” that he had hidden for her in the bookcase. But it was Christmas Eve—the stores were closed. After Cathy went to bed, one of my friend’s other sisters remembered a pile of old dolls down in the basement. “We found a doll, cleaned it, found a dress, washed and ironed,” my friend recalls. “We combed the hair, we gave it earrings and jewelry.” At dawn, Cathy ran down the stairs and found in the back of the bookcase the beautiful doll she knew would be there.

Susan Woodbury and I were best friends in Massapequa, N.Y., when we were 12. All she wanted when she was 10 or 11 was a wooden guitar. In the weeks before Christmas, she ransacked the house, looking under beds, steeling herself for disappointment. “My mother rarely gave me what I wanted, but what she thought I should have,” Susan says. Then she found it, in the back of her parents’ closet: “It was a blond-wood guitar with this great knotty finish on the back, and simple strings.” Christmas morning it was under the tree, covered by a towel. Susan enacted surprise. “I should have won an Academy award.”

The New York attorney Lloyd Green was a kid in the 1970s in Borough Park, Brooklyn. “My favorite Hanukkah memory was my folks gave me Strat-O-Matic Baseball as a gift, a stats-filled board game. Come Shabbat afternoon, my friends and I would play it for hours, until we had to attend afternoon worship. The game gave me a lifelong appreciation for baseball, and for numbers telling a story. . . . Mom, Dad, and Hanukkah, thank you.”

Kathy Enright and I were in high school together. Her father was in the Navy and often away. “When I was 8 years old in Hacketstown, N.J.,” Kathy recalls, “there was a Pink Lady bike by Schwinn in the window of a store. I wanted it so badly and my mother said, ‘We can’t afford it, we can’t afford it.’ Mostly I got shoes and socks and underwear, things that we needed that were practical.” And yet that Christmas Eve, “I walked into the living room and my Pink Lady bike was in front of the Christmas tree. I rode it until I graduated high school.”

The stories got me thinking this week of the little book that has the best Christmas scene since Charles Dickens, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith. Francie and her brother, Neeley, are in grade school. Their family can’t afford a Christmas tree, but then a chance arises. The guy who sells Christmas trees down the block always has a few scrawny ones left by midnight Christmas Eve, and to get rid of them he has an annual Christmas Tree Throw. Poor kids and poor fathers gather on the street every year, and the salesman heaves a tree up in the air—if you can catch it and don’t fall, it’s yours. Francie and Neeley stand on the cold, snowy pavement, steady themselves, catch a tree . . . and keep their footing. It’s theirs. They march it triumphantly upstairs to their tenement apartment, and on the way the neighbors, hearing the commotion, poke their heads out their doors, saying, “Congratulations!” and “Merry Christmas!” And Francie’s family stood the tree in a big tin bucket. There were no ornaments, “but the big tree standing there was enough.”

My favorite gift of childhood was so surprising and moving and big. I was 9 or 10 and badly wanted a desk. I needed a desk because I had been selling neighborhood subscriptions to a local weekly newspaper called, as I remember it, the Massapequa Post. My success convinced me that I would someday be a great newspaper executive. I noticed in the old movies that played on channel 9 that what were then called career women—Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn played those parts—often had a long, triangular nameplate on their desks. I made one for myself out of cardboard at school. Now all I needed was the desk. But such a piece of furniture was too expensive, too much to ask for in a family of nine.

I was in a religious phase, however, and prayed. And on Christmas morning, there beside the tree was a rough, oblong piece of beige plywood stapled or nailed to two pieces of plywood supporting it on either side. And if you looked at it with imagination, it looked exactly like . . . a desk. I was in heaven. I got a kitchen chair, sat at the desk and closed my eyes and thanked God. Then, suddenly, with my eyes closed, in my imagination, I saw it. Everything. There was a manger in the darkness and a man and a woman, and it was cold and there were stars in the sky, and hills, and wise men came with staffs and gazed in wonder. I saw it all, as if on film in a newsreel. It hit me like an electric bolt. I thought: “It’s all true. It really happened. I just saw it.”

I never forgot it, of course, and in later years, teaching catechism classes, I’d say at the end, “All you have to do is remember: It’s all true. It really happened. Just keep that in your mind.”

To be given a moment like that and take it through your life—that was some kind of gift.