20 December 2010

Christmas Memories: Childhood

I never wanted to find out what I was getting for Christmas.  My brother, on the other hand, became a spy around Thanksgiving.  A little light went on that told him there'd be Christmas gifts stashed somewhere, and he was gonna find 'em.  It was a fairly good bet to make, too, since our mom began Christmas shopping the day after Christmas.  She'd find something she thought either of us might like, and if it was on sale, chances were good it would be squirreled away somewhere.  Adam knew this, and periodically he'd come running into my room asking if I wanted to know what I was getting.  It killed him every time I said, "No."  What was I supposed to do with this information, anyway?  Go crazy knowing what it was, but not getting to have it for another three weeks?  Plus, it was one more gift I wasn't going to get to open with any sense of surprise.  I'm really bad at faking surprise and excitement.

I think we were the last generation that didn't expect a big ticket time under the tree.  It was 1985, after all, before the Nintendo Entertainment System came along.  Today's kids--not to sound like a cranky old codger--are used to there being a new Nintendo, PlayStation and/or X-Box on the market every Christmas.  Sometimes a new home video format comes along, like the DVD player in the late 90s, or Blu-ray players a few years ago.  iPods and Kindles have entered the race.  Parents seem to just kind of rotate among them.  In our day, though, no parent in my socio-economic class would have put a $250 piece of electronics in the hands of a 10 year old.  Why did you need to play your own music, anyway?  Listen to the radio in the car, like everybody else!

It's no secret we were, shall we say, lower-middle class.  We lived in a government subsidized neighborhood.  Homes were cozy, but cookie cutters.  As a child, I hated the front yard because it sloped down to the street, which was horrible for playing catch.  There was, however, a little hill on one side that dropped down onto our neighbor's lawn, and their little girl and I liked to roll down it until we got dizzy.  Then her parents moved, and I never connected with anyone else who lived in their home.  Rolling down that hill lost its charm.

Mom didn't decorate the outside of the house much, but she loved to dress up the inside.  We'd put up the tree, with her handing us ornaments she trusted us with and putting up the rest herself.  She'd tell us about some of them, things that were heirlooms, or reminded her of someone.  I remember we'd always put up tinsel, throwing handfuls of the silvery stuff, until we were out of it.  Mom would have to go around and even it out, because Adam wasn't tall enough to toss it very high and I had to give him enough room to stand and throw that I couldn't get to all of the tree.  It never seemed to matter, though.

There was a little wall next to the door; I suppose more of a partition than anything.  I remember the little spires would be trimmed with white and red yarn, or something Christmas-y.  It would be covered with Christmas cards, taped to be seen on either side.  Other cards and decorations could be found on the entertainment center (which she still has, all these years later).  She had a little snow-covered village scene that lit up.  I liked it, but since dusting the furniture in the living room was one of my chores, I hated having to work around the thing.

You can see the little partition near the door, covered in Christmas cards.
The one Christmas that I always think of was sometime in the mid-80s.  I want to say 1986, but it may have been as late as1987.  Adam had his own room, but Mom insisted he sleep in my room on Christmas Eve.  This was because my room was at the end of the hall, the furthest from the living room (and the tree).  Anyway, some time around 3:00 or so, I awakened and was thirsty.  I wasn't awake enough to want to open gifts or rouse anyone else, so I deliberately averted my eyes from the living room--no small feat in a house with the size and layout of ours--and walked into the kitchen.  I went to the cabinet, grabbed a cup and poured some water (quietly).  All I needed to do was go back the way I came and wait for a more respectable time to go gaga over the spread I knew would be under the tree.

Pausing for a moment as I did, I turned round and there it was.  The kitchen table, literally covered with G.I. Joes.  Vehicles and figures galore; I couldn't even tell you know how many were there.  They were arranged as two armies facing one another, Joes and Cobra fighting side by side against other Joes and Cobra.  Tanks, planes and foot soldiers a-plenty.  It was obvious that Adam would get one side, and I'd get the other.  I may have traded a few things between the armies, but I made sure it was a balanced trade; a figure for a figure, a small vehicle for a small vehicle.  I didn't cheat my brother out of anything.

Later, it would cross my mind that none of these toys were in their original packages.  None of them were even new.  Mom had accumulated the whole lot in waves over the entire year at yard sales.  It added up to quite a lot of toys.  That's how she was, though.  In her mind, we'd rather have a table full of G.I. Joes than the far fewer number we could have had if she'd spent the same money on new toys.  She was right, of course.

I've met plenty of people who take a very derisive view of buying or owning used things, and are horrified by the idea of giving something used as a gift.  I didn't grow up with that kind of prejudice.  My mom thought it was better to dress us in $20 worth of used Guess? Jeans than $20 worth of the Rustlers they sold at Wal-Mart.  (Guess? was once somewhat trendy, and I have to say their jeans always held up well.)  I know it's not  for everyone, but that philosophy made sense to me as a kid and it makes sense to me now: I rarely buy a book that doesn't come off a shelf at Half Price Books; most of them from the $1-3 clearance section.  It's not like the book is any better or worse if I pay more for it, and quite often the books I've found have betrayed no more shelf wear than those at new bookstores.

We celebrated with Mom's side of the family on Christmas Eve.  Most years this involved us going to my grandmother's, and exchanging gifts with the family there.  Until 1989, Adam and I were the only two kids so it was mostly about us.  We just had to be patient enough to make it through dinner.  Often, we'd make small plates and devour them, then squirm in our seats knowing we could make another plate later after we'd gone through the gifts.

Christmas morning, we would wake up to Santa's gifts and have a little time to go through them and play before our dad would pick us up.  We went a lot of places over the years with Dad, from his brother's house to each of our stepmother's parents's homes.  Sometimes it would be another aunt or uncle hosting.  In the early 90s, they moved from their small home to a larger one and began regularly hosting Christmas themselves, which cut down on the chaos of our 48 hour Christmases.  At some point, we'd wind up at Dad's and get the gifts there.  I remember one year they got me the Snake Mountain playset, and I was stoked...until I was informed it had to remain there.  I felt that was unfair since that meant my Snake Mountain playset would be somewhere I wasn't for 11 1/2 out of every 14 days.  Besides, Mom let me bring toys to Dad's.  Whatever.
I got to visit Snake Mountain every other weekend.
What I remember best about Dad's are the stockings.  At Mom's, they were loaded with candies and small gifts that, themselves, weren't worth wrapping.  There were baseball bat keychains and Ninja Turtle buttons mixed in with chocolate snowmans (I prefer that term to "snowmen" and don't care that it's not an actual word).  At Dad's, stockings consisted of nuts and oranges.  There were other fresh fruits, but I clearly recall the oranges because they were bright, heavy and they stung my fingers when I ate them.  Those stockings were clearly less fun, but I always liked that they were traditional.  I never saw the point in saying so to Mom; this way I got both my chocolate snowmans and tradition.  (In addition to saving money, growing up without much money teaches you to learn how to maximize your take.)

There are pictures of us visiting various mall Santas as kids; Mom was a mallrat as a youth and we spent quite a lot of ours in them, too.  We didn't really buy much, but they were spacious and as kids we were slow walkers so it was an inexpensive way to while away a Sunday afternoon.  We'd eat at the food court; to this day, I resent that Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays.  It always looked good, and as anyone who knows me can attest, I rank waffle fries above all other cuts.  Anyway, I don't remember ever really knowing what to say to these Santas.  I knew they weren't communicating with Mom, so I could have told them anything and unless I asked for something alarming, the only thing I was going to hear was something like, "We'll see" or "Smile for the camera" or "Get a candy cane from Santa's helper."

Dad didn't do the mall.  In fact, Dad doesn't do civilization.  You might have thought that those Hank Williams, Jr. songs were just written about exaggerated caricatures or militiamen, but they're as much about him as either of those.  I can literally count on one hand the number of times I recall ever eating food that came from a restaurant with him, and once was at a Wendy's after my step-sister's wedding in 1998.  So, no mall Santas with him, but I do remember a Wal-Mart Santa one year.  As I recall, we got there just as Santa was about to call it a night, but he indulged us anyway.  I remember being just as stumped as ever, but it seems that Adam was particularly animated that time.  Maybe not, but this is my blog and I'm telling you the kid was practically ecstatic.

I used to sometimes wonder which, of all these elements, I'd want to pass on as an adult.  It appears that, for myself, I've lost any interest in any of them.  Sometimes I think I should go through the motions and see if it jogs the ol' Christmas spirit any.  I think those who say "Christmas is about the kids" are wrong (it's about celebrating the legacy of Christ), but I get the point.  There are kids in my life, but none for whom I'm responsible.  They don't come to me for the magic of Christmas; they come to me for the gifts.  It's rather cold to put it that way, and of course I don't mean to suggest that all I represent to them is a means to gifts.  Ultimately, though, I'm just a cousin and an uncle.  It's outside the purview of my role to bring the razzle dazzle.  Just as I believe Dad should have been free to give us stockings with nuts and fruit, I believe it's not my place to give them to someone else's kid--even family.

Don't worry; as gift-givers go, I'm almost always on the top of the kids' favorite list.  I give cool stuff.  Like this year, I'm giving...

You know, actually, I could probably say what I'm giving each of them.  None of them reads this blog, despite following me on Facebook and seeing links to these every time I post them.  Ungrateful little snots!  I'd give them all stockings of nuts and fruit, except the meaning would be lost on them.

2 comments:

  1. My Christmases were....heck I could write a novel about all the different Christmases I had. But one thing was always certain- My grandmother always made sure I did not go without. Often by going overboard. Other than that, there were no real traditions to speak of. That would almost be like....stability? Consistency? Yeah, not us.

    In my own family we have implemented the "three gift" guideline. Three gifts were what Jesus received on the day of His birth, and three gifts are good enough for my little sinners. Among the three gifts will be "something you want, something you need, and something to read". Sometimes the "something you want" is in fact what is known as a "big ticket item", but not necessarily high dollar. One year the big ticket item was a $12 Tracfone.

    There are a few loopholes, of course. Christmas Eve, the kids get a new pair of pajamas. And the three gifts rule applies to everyone, including grandma, but even she finds her own loophole. For example, a big box FULL of new clothes counts as one gift, as it is only one box. Another loophole is that we have a very large family. My kids have seven uncles with almost as many aunts. They do just fine, despite mom and dad setting such tight limits.

    I was told, by several elders, that "size" matters. The childrens' gifts should all be the same general size. Many young children, when given the choice between a nickel and a dime, will choose the nickel because it is bigger, so I suppose I can agree with that sentiment. This element definitely changes as they get older! When one covets electronics and gadgets, smaller is definitely more exciting to my older kids.

    I also remember a lot more intricate wrapping when I was little. Paper, curling ribbon, bows, tags. I prefer to bag it all with tissue paper, saving the bags for next year. Why spend all of that money on wrapping paper when it's pretty much trash when you buy it?

    ReplyDelete
  2. My Christmases were....heck I could write a novel about all the different Christmases I had. But one thing was always certain- My grandmother always made sure I did not go without. Often by going overboard. Other than that, there were no real traditions to speak of. That would almost be like....stability? Consistency? Yeah, not us.

    In my own family we have implemented the "three gift" guideline. Three gifts were what Jesus received on the day of His birth, and three gifts are good enough for my little sinners. Among the three gifts will be "something you want, something you need, and something to read". Sometimes the "something you want" is in fact what is known as a "big ticket item", but not necessarily high dollar. One year the big ticket item was a $12 Tracfone.

    There are a few loopholes, of course. Christmas Eve, the kids get a new pair of pajamas. And the three gifts rule applies to everyone, including grandma, but even she finds her own loophole. For example, a big box FULL of new clothes counts as one gift, as it is only one box. Another loophole is that we have a very large family. My kids have seven uncles with almost as many aunts. They do just fine, despite mom and dad setting such tight limits.

    I was told, by several elders, that "size" matters. The childrens' gifts should all be the same general size. Many young children, when given the choice between a nickel and a dime, will choose the nickel because it is bigger, so I suppose I can agree with that sentiment. This element definitely changes as they get older! When one covets electronics and gadgets, smaller is definitely more exciting to my older kids.

    I also remember a lot more intricate wrapping when I was little. Paper, curling ribbon, bows, tags. I prefer to bag it all with tissue paper, saving the bags for next year. Why spend all of that money on wrapping paper when it's pretty much trash when you buy it?

    ReplyDelete