Celebrating Christmas During Hard Times With Food Stamps and the Piggly Wiggly

Do you think this Christmas is tough? Try living during the first Christmas.

A Grain of Salt | ElbyJames
5 min readDec 3, 2023
Government cheese
Government cheese is processed cheese provided to welfare beneficiaries, Food Stamp recipients, and the elderly receiving Social Security in the United States, as well as to food banks and churches. This processed cheese was used in military kitchens during World War II and has been used in schools since the 1950s. @fightfor15

Christmas was always a time of the year me and my three brothers looked forward to. December approached slower than we liked, yet, we counted down the days as Christmas inched closer and closer.

When Halloween arrived, we knew Christmas was close.

When Thanksgiving arrived we knew it was just a matter of weeks.

When Christmas break started, it was just a matter of days.

We were just like any other child in America, we couldn’t wait for the 25th.

When Christmas Eve arrived, we could barely sleep. Every noise we heard was surely Santa landing on our roof.

We always woke early and ran down the stairs heading straight for the tree; the stockings were always overlooked until the end.

This was always followed by an early dinner. Our mother spent the day before cooking the turkey and ham and all the side dishes. The smells of the feast lasted throughout the day all through the house, especially the freshly baked pies.

As the years passed more and more of our feast was prepared by the fine people at the A&P or the Piggly Wiggly… we didn’t care; it was still good (but mother’s was still the best.)

Seconds turned into thirds which turned into desert. Don’t forget about the late night sandwich before bed. The Christmas dinner always lingered into the next few days by way of left overs.

When I was 17 years old, reality came tumbling down.

I grew up in a military family which turned into a typical middle class family when my father retired from the Air Force. Some years later we lived as a lower middle class family; life was never as good as when my father was in the military.

We teetered on falling below the poverty line many times but didn’t quite sink below the line . . . yet.

As I approached my 17th birthday, the days living as a typical middle class family became fewer and fewer.

When I turned 17, our family hit rock bottom.

Luckily, we had my father’s military retirement to prop us up, although contrary to popular belief, an enlisted person’s retirement isn’t much. At this point we had to depend on food stamps, it was a decision my mother regretted.

Old school food stamps
the Food Stamp Program, is a federal government program that provides food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people to help them maintain adequate nutrition and health. It is a federal aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA) under the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), though benefits are distributed by specific departments of U.S. states (e.g., the Division of Social Services, the Department of Health and Human Services, etc.).

We had to frequent food banks weekly and became dependent on government cheese. Ahh yes, that staple of poverty: yellow and rubbery goodness. Poverty never tasted so good.

We weren’t the only ones though who experienced government cheese. In “F.U.T.W.,” Jay-Z laments: “After that government cheese, we eating steak/After the projects, we on estates.”

Kendrick Lamar contemplates his love of government cheese in “Money Trees:” “Pots with cocaine residue, every day I’m hustling/ What else is a thug to do when you eating cheese from the government?”

Clipping coupons and shopping on double coupon-days at the Piggly Wiggly and the A&P became a ritual. The Sunday paper gave us a treasure trove of coupons and savings in the tens of dollars.

We shopped at the “bread stores” which were abundant in our town seeing how Dolly Madison Bakery was headquartered here. We existed on day old bread, doughnuts, and any bakery product too old to sell at grocery markets.

Second and third jobs became a way of life.

I was oblivious to all this at first. My parents kept money issues between the grown-ups; my countdown towards Christmas continued though. The weeks prior to Christmas really affected me as I became privy to the grown-ups money problems.

The week before Christmas, my parents took me — not my brothers, they still weren’t privy to the facts — to the mega food bank in our town. My parents never took me to the food banks before, they always told me that they went to the IGA or the A&P when they went food shopping.

The Piggly Wiggly grocery store
Piggly Wiggly is an American supermarket chain operating in the American Southern and Midwestern regions. Its first outlet opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, and is notable as the first true self-service grocery store, and the originator of various familiar supermarket features such as checkout stands, individual item price marking and shopping carts.

We gave the attendant our letter and we were given a voucher. With this voucher we were allotted three brown shopping bags of food. My father took these to our car as me and my mother walked into a warehouse to pick out our Christmas gifts.

It was huge.

It was massive.

This warehouse is where Santa dropped off toys for the poor children (so I was told): Used bicycles, dolls which were given new clothes and sometimes new limbs, games with missing or make shift pieces. There were also toys which were donated from congregations of different churches throughout our town and toys which were donated from department stores.

Christmas died for me that day.

No longer did I buy a Christmas tree.

No longer did I hang a wreath on my door.

No longer did I hang decorations in my apartment.

My Christmas was a stripped down, bare bones Christmas. I went to midnight mass and then I’d go to the Waffle House for my Christmas dinner. I’d go home have a few beers and pass out on couch with the dogs at my feet.

I used my Christmas day off (if I’m lucky to get the day off) to catch up on things I needed to do: Laundry, reading, washing my car, giving my dogs a long needed bath.

Every year I thought about that horrible Christmas. The pain has faded but the memory still lingers. But what I have come to realize after all those years is this; Christmas isn’t about gifts, it’s about family. And for me, we had each other that year: My brothers and our parents (along with our pets).

We may argue and have plenty of infighting. Some of us sat in the kitchen and ate. Some may have sat in front of the tv watching the Turkey bowl. Irregardless, all of us were together.

I still celebrate a stripped down Christmas: No tree; no wreath; very, very few presents or cards; and I still go to the Waffle House after midnight mass. Even after my epiphany, nothing much has changed.

So, I have come to realize that my Christmas didn’t really die.

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2023© ElbyJames



A Grain of Salt | ElbyJames

ElbyJames is an American disabled combat vet exiled in the UK & a free speech absolutist. He’s an occasional Top Writer