Bill Whitaker, who turns 100 years old this weekend, says the past century snuck up on him.
Whitaker was born on Christmas Eve in 1916. A Portsmouth native, Whitaker now resides at Norfolk’s Commonwealth Senior Living at The Ballentine.
Whitaker, and his 94-year-old Commonwealth neighbor Dorothy Joyner, reminisced about past Christmases and how the holidays have changed over the last 100 years.
“Having a Christmas Eve birthday was OK with me because I would get double the presents,” Whitaker said. “I remember one Christmas back in the 1920s during the Great Depression. Santa Claus brought me a scout knife and a pair of boots, but the economy was bad so that was all I got.”
Back then the holidays were much simpler, said Whitaker.
“At that time, people waited until Christmas Eve to put up the tree. We always bought a live tree and decorated together,” he said. “Nowadays, people decorate for Christmas early — I think that ruins it. Christmas doesn’t mean as much as it used to.”
Joyner, who has lived in Norfolk all of her life, said the types and prices of presents children look forward to receiving on Christmas have significantly changed.
“Today, most everything is electronic. Back then, we got things like bicycles and skates. If I got a pair of skates I was in hog heaven,” she said. “I was into dolls growing up, and on Christmas morning when we came downstairs my dolls would be under the tree wearing brand new outfits.”
Whitaker said he longed for a toy train as a boy.
“One Christmas Eve I was in bed and heard my dad running a train on the kitchen floor,” he said. “I don’t know how long he ran it, but on Christmas morning when we assembled it wouldn’t run anymore.”
The holidays have evolved over the years, but parents have always worked hard to make Christmas special for their kids, said Whitaker.
“After us kids went to bed on Christmas Eve, mom and dad would stay up late to set everything out. Then we would wake up at three or four in the morning, which woke mom and dad up, those poor people,” he said. “One Christmas Day, dad got so disgusted with us that he locked us in the bedroom until it was time to get up.”
Joyner recalled a similar Christmas struggle after she became a parent to four kids.
“My husband and I would stay up until two or three in the morning decorating. I always had dark circles under my eyes from going to bed so late,” she said. “I remember one year when we were getting ready to puts the kids’ presents out I looked up and saw two of them standing in the doorway. My husband told them Santa was running behind and had asked us to help put the presents out for him.”
This year, Joyner said she plans to spend her holiday weekend with surrounding family, something that has become more important to her as she’s gotten older.
“The holidays have changed for me over the years because none of my family has lived in Norfolk since they left the nest,” she said. “They all have their own families, but I like to visit them when I can.”
Whitaker will spend his birthday and holiday visiting with in-laws and being thankful for his 100 years.
“I thank the Lord for the gift of life,” he said. “It’s the best gift in the world. The best gift of all-time.”
Pohl may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org