Seven Cakes – Though Dirt Poor, They Had Cake For Christmas

Life during the depression in rural Alabama wasn’t too different from any other time of year for my people. You see, they were sharecroppers – dirt farmers who didn’t even own their own dirt. They wouldn’t have known if the world had been prosperous, their lives had always been a struggle of hard work and all too often relying on hope for the next meal.

This time of year, there wasn’t a whole lot to be thankful for, other than the fact that there wasn’t any cotton to pick. For them, winter was as bleak as the Alabama landscape. In Alabama, we are not often afforded the sight of glistening snow resting atop hills and trees in a winter wonderland. Here, the sky just gets gray and the landscape browns – bare trees, brown grass, and muddy earth where fields lay in wait for spring . . . as far as the eye can see.

My great grandmother had four children and they all lived in a small shack house. Wood was a precious thing and that meant only heating one room. My grandmamma says “it got so cold at night. Mama would heat rocks and wrap ‘em up in old towels and things to put in bed with us but we still got so cold. You didn’t dare get out of that bed unless you just had to”.

Families would work all year for the farmer in exchange for monthly rations of staples such as dried beans, flour, and the occasional bit of meat. At harvest’s end they’d get a percentage of profits on the cotton, but all of the staples which had been provided for them were then deducted from the final cost, leaving families in a continued state of dependence upon the farm owner for enough food to survive the winter.

But with winter, came Christmas, and my great grandmother always did manage to make it special despite their hardships. Lela’s life had always been a hard one. Growing up one of nine children in Jackson County, she had spent her childhood traveling from farm to farm with her parents and siblings, picking cotton and tending to whatever crops the farm owner decided to plant. Now she had four kids to provide a Christmas for and keeping them fed and clothed took about all she had and then some.

But she never failed them. She always came through, especially at Christmastime.

Lela squirreled away ingredients all year long. A little sugar here, some dried apples there, maybe some raisins and a bit of cinnamon. After the kids went to bed on Christmas Eve, she’d set to work. Using only what she had on hand and no recipes to speak of, Lela would stay awake all night baking cakes in her little wood stove. She’d make an apple stack cake, a raisin cake, yellow cake with chocolate icing, peanut butter cake, and so on. There was never a plan beyond that of needing to make seven of them – one for each day from Christmas until the New Year.

The next morning, four sets of eyes would open wide and four sets of feet would hurry out of their cold beds into the only heated room in the house where their faces would light up at seeing the bounty of seven cakes sitting on the worn kitchen table. I know how their faces looked because my grandmother’s still lights up the same way now, some seventy years later, when she talks about those cakes. The kids took turns being the one to choose the cake they ate that day and between the six of them and any company who happened by, they made short work of it and were ready to start with a new one the next morning.

Most kids today would consider having cakes baked for you as your only Christmas gift to be a disappointment. But amid all of the wrappings and bows, gift sets and feasts, I hope your Christmas somehow manages to be as magical as it was in that little sharecroppers house in Alabama during the depression, when four kids woke up with stars in their eyes at finding seven cakes.

Gratefully,
Christy

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Merry Christmas from Southern Plate!


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Comments

  1. Kay E. says

    Thank you, dear Christy, for passing on your Grandma’s wonderful memory.
    My father was one of 9. On Christmas morning, they would all run to thier stockings, for they knew they would each contain an orange…the only one they would see all year. Dad said they would take all day to eat it, making it last as long as possible.
    My dad’s memories always kept us grateful for whatever we got.
    Merry Christmas to al! !!!

  2. Kay says

    Christy: Thank you for the wonderful story. Most of us try not to think about the hard times but really it makes us appreciate more what we have now. Wishing you and your family a wonderful Christmas.

  3. Kathy says

    What a wonderful story, Christy, I like hearing your stories because my Mothers parents were share croppers also but in Georgia.They grew cotton and my Mom used to tell about picking cotton until her fingers bled. We just don’t know how good we have it. Merry Christmas

  4. Jan Kalonick says

    Loved the story. Reminded me of growing up in East TN. There were 8 of us children and the bedrooms were always cold, so cold in fact that if you had a class of water in the bedroom, it would be frozen the next morning. Yes, that was cold. Thanks for your wonderful blog and the wonderful stories that you share. Merry Christmas.

  5. Terry Reeb says

    Thanks, Christy for the heartwarming story! My grandfather was also a sharecropper in Alabama. Times were hard but life was more innocent and simple back then. My family had similar stories. They were transplants from Mississippi to Mobile. My Dad said they HAD to move because everybody was related in the little town they lived in! Lol! Well THAT sure explains a lot! Lol! My great grandma Virgie always said,” you may be poor but you can always be clean!” My great great grandfather was a doctor but he generally got paid in food or whatever the patients could afford…chickens or whatever. Our family has so much more now than then but I know the family was closer back then! Go figure! Do we live so fast that we forget to REALLY live? My New Years resolution is to try to become closer to my family! God Bless!!

  6. Grateful1 says

    Thanks for suggestions of ways to be creative & get thru the present, being grateful & content with what I have, not focusing on the things I don’t. Experiences past brings hope to the present. Thanks for sharing! Merry Christmas!

  7. Kathy Pressnell says

    My parents always filled our stockings with an orange, apple, nuts, candy cane, and thin mints. Even though I didn’t understand then why our stockings were filled with those goodies only now can I fully appreciate those cherished memories and the fact our parents wanted to share and keep their childhood memories alive with hopes that we would pass them down generation to generation.

  8. Linda Kay Bingham Cornett says

    This is a beautiful story and for me , not so hard to relate to. I was born at the very beginning of WW2 and food and supply rationing was the thing. People had to be creative to make up for the shortages of everyday items. They were glad to make the sacrifice so that our precious soldiers over in Europe could have the things they needed. We are so blessed today and with an over abundance that too often you dont see true thankfulness. I am thankful for a mother and grandmother who always came through at Christmas with goodies and a few toys for us. Daddy and Papaw have to be included in that too.
    Merry Christmas, Christy & family and the Southern Plate family.

  9. SweetCarol says

    My grandmother made Apple Stake Cake, too, only she called it fruit cake. It had many stacks as each layer was split in half. the dried apples were cooked in water and produced a brown apple sauce and to it was added cinnamon and usually either nutmeg or allspice. She would put the apple mixture between each layer and also on the top of the cake which was 6 or 8 stacks high and it was iced all around the sides. We liked it and the cake had to be saved for 24 hours before it was eaten to allow the apple sauce to soak into the cake layer. This was an old recipe out of Ky. My grandparents lived in little shacks in Ky. but grandpa got a job with the railroad and went to Tennessee. They grew their own veggies and had apple trees. They dried applies behind the stove and also dried green beans on string behind the stove. They never had central heat even though they moved to a big house. There was a wood burner in the living room which also was a bedroom though there were other rooms in the house in their last days. The kids bought them an oil heater and they sat their chairs in front of that. /the bed was to their back, the sofa and other chairs were to the sides and the sewing machine was on the other side. Grandma had a treddle machine but Grandpa bought her an electric zig zag which she wouldn’t use so he did the mending and also he started to doing quilts in the winter as he had his garden in the summer. He did the canning in later life, too, as Grandma was sick. Grandma used to help can . Grandpa still canned on the wood burning stove rather than the electric one in the other kitchen. When my mom was growing up they had a 3 room house and had 9 kids = 5 boys and 4 girls. The kids all lived in the one room and living room and bedroom was where Grandparents lived. I was born there as well. They always had room for everyone. Two brothers )(one being my grandfather) married 2 sisters (one being Grandma). Food was always great at Grandma’s house. We had fresh veggies and their home canned vegetables. It is surprising that they bought their apple butter rather than making it themselves. No one’s green beans tasted as good as theirs. I sure wished I had learned more about gardening.

  10. SweetCarol says

    The kids would sit on the porch on weekend evenings and people from around the area would come to listen to them play music and sing and would join in. A couple of the brothers played the guitar and the all sang. Mom and her sisters used to sing in church. Church was about the only place they could go and they had to be home the rest of the time. They had to quit school by about the 6th grade. Mom always encouraged us to go to school and do well as she really wanted to keep on at school.

  11. SweetCarol says

    My grandparents were lucky that they could afford 2 little pigs in the spring and raised them on leftovers all summer and then butchered them out in the fall. They kept one inthe smokehouse for their food and one they sold and it paid for the kids shoes for school and also a coat if they needed some. My dad on the other hand went to school with rags tied around his feet as he didn’t have shoes to wear in the winter.

  12. Katie S. says

    Christy, your stories and recipes are like Christmas gifts all year round. Thank you for always offering us some thoughtful perspective along with something delicious. Merry Christmas to you and all your family!

  13. Connie says

    My parents gre up in the old South, just differently. My granmother was born in Feb 1891, on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma territory. My grandfather fell in love with her when he set eyes on her, but had to wait until she was grown, then married her on Christmas day. Their life was hard, with a wood cookstove, and a chimney with double hearths, and had 11 children. Momma remembered the Christmas she got crayons, along with some fruit, as so special.
    Daddy’s father was different, moving them often, as all 9 of them came, and they were often left alone with their wonderful mother trying to make the best of it. He remembered a winter, maybe Christmas as they never knew it as children, when he was a small boy, taking a hatchet and cutting a pine sapling they dragged on the porch in the snow. They cut lengths of it at a time to feed their ownly heat, a wood stove.
    In later years, my parents loved Christmas, lavishing so many great memories on us. But still the best are those of how they grew up, and still were able to share love, warmth, fun, gifts, humor, and family with their children.

  14. Jan Haynes says

    Your story really touched my heart, (as do they always). We were raised as Louisiana sharecroppers kids and it was hard. Much the same as the story you tell, but everybody was basically like us so we didn’t notice it too much.
    Christmas was and is very special. My best to you and yours.

  15. Pat Payne says

    Christy, thank you so much for the story and the recipe. My mom wanted fried apple pie yesterday morning but I have not worked too much with pie dough. But I remembered seeing apple fritters on your site and got the recipe. Easy peasy and delicious! You’re a keeper for sure. Many blessings to you and your family.

  16. Betty Grubbs says

    Christy, I enjoy your website so much. My husband’s people comes from Jackson County, Alabama and were sharecroppers so your story is much like his. My people were from Arkansas but the same story. It was a very hard life but so much love and togetherness. My mom would warm towels by the space heater and bring them to the bed and wrap my brother and my feet, but I am sure she got this idea from her mom heating the bricks from the wood stove when she grew up. We never had warm rooms all over the house, just the living room which always had a bed in it and the kitchen. What fond memories and I love it when you tell your stories as it brings it right home to me. Thanks again and happy new year.

  17. Barbara Smith says

    Christy, your story touched my heart. My father in law; who we were blessed to have live with us for 30 years until he went to heaven; used to tell us stories of how they used newspaper to stuff between the shack walls to try to keep out the wind; and how many mornings he and his brothers and sisters would wake up and have to shake the snow off the cover before getting out of bed. He also lived in the share cropper house; and life was so hard. We had our own share of hardships when our boys were little; I was very sick and we were so poor; but God answered our prayers, and I am still here and they are all grown; and I want to thank you for reminding us all how fortunate we are even if all we can say we have is one another. Your Tennessee friend, Barbara

  18. LAURA says

    Wow! Thanks for this. It reminds me of the book my Dad (age 82) wrote about his memories, growing up in a coal patch in western Pa. during the depression. Even with the poverty & not much in material things, they had the most important thing a family should have: LOVE…. God bless you, Christy! And may your family have all the LOVE you need this new year!

  19. Judy says

    Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been so busy I hadn’t had time to read until now. A wonderful end to my Christmas. I can relate although I am of a different generation.

    But I have to ask – Do you continue the 7 cakes tradition, Christy?
    I sure. Hope so.

  20. says

    Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like my families story except that it was in north carolina, and the crop was tobacco. My grandmother grew up with nothing, and did not have much throughout her life. But she was the most generous person that I knew. She never complained, and always had a smile on her face. My grandmother died at the age of 94 three years ago, and I miss her more that Words can express. She taught me a lot of important life lessons. I should also add that she was a wonderful cook!

  21. Sue Wilkins says

    I was just able to read your story as our power has been off since Christmas day afternoon. Brrrr were we ever cold and so thankful when it came on this morning.
    My mother grew up exactly like your grandmother as she told stories so similar to yours, thank you for bringing back those memories for me. My Mama passed in 1981 and I still miss her so much.
    Also, my husbands grandmothers name was Lela and I loved her like she was my own grandmother. She was the only person I had ever heard of with that name.
    God bless them all and all of us too.
    Thank you, Christy….Hope you had a wonderful Christmas.
    With love to you and yours.

  22. Gloria says

    Thank you so very, very much for the wonderful story. Brought on tears and many childhood memories. My parents wern’t sharecroppers but, but married during the depression and lived on and off with my grandparents, whom lived in city limits, but at that time could and did raise their own chickens, had a cow and butchered a pig once a year and had a big garden and grape arbor that made the best jelly & grandpas wine. A small city lot with an out house and smoke house too. My dad said sometimes he would work all day for 50 cents.
    Sure do miss them “all” and the “good ole days”…….p.s. thanks for the print off book.

  23. says

    Christy, I am just now reading this and sitting here with tears in my eyes. Your story is the story for so many of our grandparents and parents raised in the South. My mama is 82 and I remember her telling me of the Christmases when she had a little shoebox with an orange and a peppermint stick and a few nuts in it for Christmas. Her family was sharecroppers, too, and she remembers water frozen in the dishpan on cold mornings. She said she could look through the floorboards and see the chickens under the house. Hard times, but their faith and love got them through. We are so blessed today. Thank you for this reminder and God bless you and your family.

  24. Rebecca H. says

    Hi Christy, I wonder if you and I may be “long lost” relatives. This story made me have tears in my eye for it is the same story I heard from my Grandmother Luna. Did your great-grandmother Lela have a sister named Luna, Lola, Lena.. and brothers named Alman and Aubrey Clifton? My grandmother and her siblings were also share-cropping in Jackson & DeKalb counties.. dirt poor… and the women also make cakes for Christmas… just like this. She too had a sister named Lela. One depression year Christmas, a stranger came to their door, dirty, tired and very hungry. Back during the depression, people weren’t as afraid of strangers so they fed this stranger and offered him a place to stay over night in the barn with some old quilts to keep warm. The next morning, there was a 20 lb. bag of sugar left by the front door. They always believed he was Santa.. for he had to have magic to have a much treasured bag of sugar back during the deep depression. I would love to know if there is a chance you have Clifton relatives in your family. Much love, Rebecca

  25. Brenda Caldwell says

    Christy, I cried reading this…It sounds so much like my own Mother and Daddy…But just like your grandmother, my Mom always managed to make Christmas special and magical for us.

  26. Myra Hammond says

    Christy, this is the first time I have seen this Christmas story about your grandmother and great-grandmother. It sounds so much like the stories my mother used to tell about growing up during the Depression. But, I guess they were more fortunate to a degree, because they did OWN the dirt that they farmed in Blount County, AL for years and years. However, they were also “dirt poor”, as some say, and had meager “resources” at Christmas time! Reading your story and thinking on these things make me real nostalgic this Christmas, because my mother passed away in August and this will be our first Christmas without her!

  27. Mary says

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story, Christy. My grandparents were raised much the same way and were always so thankful their entire life for whatever they had. Thank you also for the downloadable ebook of recipes! Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  28. Lisa Wheeler says

    What a beautiful story! I needed to read it. We are having a tough time this year, and your story helped me remember to find joy in the small things. Hope you have a lovely Christmas with your family.

  29. Rachel Drake says

    What a wonderful story! Our family had 8 children and not much money. We did have the blessing of a heated home but mom always made Christmas special for us whether it was something she had sewn, crocheted, knitted, baked or bought. We didn’t get many gifts to open but many many gifts to carry on throughout our lives in our hearts and lessons to hand down to our own children. Merry Christmas!!

  30. Jeanie Sanders says

    Thank you Christy for sharing this beautiful story. With tears in my eyes, I am so thankful that I have been so blessed in my life and not had to go through any of the hardships that my parents and grandparents had to suffer. I do have their heritage though and am so thankful for the religious upbringing and the work ethic that they instilled in myself and my sibblings. May we never forget those who are less fortunate than us and pray for peace, love, caring and sharing throughout the world. Merry Christmas and May God Bless Us All.

  31. Barbara Marona says

    Christy, your story reminds me so much of the way I grew up and I can’t imagine how bad it was for my mother when she was growing up. But she did good she raised 7 of us without any help. Don’t know how she did it, but she was a strong and tough lady. Thank you for sharing.

  32. Sandra says

    this story touched me so. My grandfather was a sharecropper and my mother told stories of how they never had much but they had food. She was a wonderful cook that I doubt ever used a recipe. Thanks for the story!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 6. A post with title you’re most proud of. I’m not very good at post titles. I wish I was at times but its not something I’m gonna beat myself up over. Still, when I wrote the story of Seven Cakes (which is one I had been longing to write about for years) and it ran in a local nwespaper, the editor chose such a wonderful title that I went back and changed my post title to that as well. So thanks to Jennifer Hill, who came up with a title that says it all. The post also features a little gift for you to print. Read Seven Cakes – Though Dirt Poor, They Had Cake For Christmas [...]

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