the post of christmas past

Over at Pixie with a Crash Helmet today, Cornelia asks “What was the best thing your parents ever did for you during Christmas?”

This dovetails with a conversation I had earlier today with a colleague about family idiosyncrasies vis a vis Christmas gifts. In that conversation, though, we were discussing some of the less positive things our parents did for us during Christmas.

First, though, this disclaimer: My parents have always been wonderful, extremely loving and caring, and generous. On the positive side, my parents always listened to what I wanted and acted upon it (within reason), even when they probably thought that my wishes made little sense, seemed outright bizarre, or simply might not have been “typical” (heh, I’m still amazed that as a teenage boy I received a Cabbage Patch doll for my birthday one year, and two stuffed Ewoks for Christmas another; even now my mother happily indulges my elf and fairy fascination, pointing out or purchasing new items for the collection). I’ve already written about the year that I asked for a calculator for Christmas which, due to the high cost of even the simplest such in the mid-70s, would end up being practically my only gift. My parents explained that I wouldn’t get lots of presents that year, I said I understood, and indeed I got the calculator and only a few other small items. And along the lines of Cornelia’s story about Santa’s snowy footprints, my parents would enlist the aid of our grandparents who lived next door to foster the illusion of Santa and the Easter Bunny–doorbells would ring and we’d rush to the door to find Easter baskets but no one around; we’d hear sleighbells and stamping, allegedly coming from the roof; etc.

But what I tend to talk most about–and my sister and I have continued to tease our family about this and similar actions–are the other, unintentionally cruel, less generous actions. For example, one year my sister wanted an Easy-Bake Oven, which she got… but which we were allowed to use once, apparently because my dad’s childhood of poverty had him worried about the amount of electricity consumed by the lightbulb that provided the heat for cooking. Another year I received a racetrack that because of the time-consuming setup and large area of floor it covered was only ever permitted to be set up and used once as well. Similarly there were the Creepy Crawler machines and Spirographs and their ilk that, once the initial supplies were exhausted, were never refilled to be used again.

The other cruelty perpetrated on us, about which my parents later expressed strong regrets, was that when my sister and I awoke on Christmas morning, even at a reasonable hour, we weren’t permitted to go to the living room and see our presents until our grandparents and aunt were telephoned, awake, dressed and had arrived at our house; I realize now it probably was never more than 20 minutes to half an hour, but as a kid every minute was a tortured lifetime. Later, once my sister had children and began holding Christmas at her house, my parents and I would spend the night there–even though they lived a short walk away–and the boys were permitted to go downstairs once they were all awake, with no more waiting until all the relative had arrived before even being allowed to see the tree and gifts.

Finally, though, I want to comment on the deftly positive way in which my parents dealt with the issue of Santa. Santa was never portrayed in our family as a purely benevolent gift-giver–my questions to my parents very early about why some kids, like us, seemed to be favored when many other good kids at church or school received little or nothing from Santa elicited the explanation that Santa was really just a glorified delivery man. Yes, the elves built some of the toys, though Santa purchased most of them from the department stores–after all, we’d seen them there and wondered why the elves would waste their time–but that parents had to pay him for these gifts the same price they’d pay in a retail store. So while Santa did the work of acquiring, wrapping and delivering the goods, Mom and Dad really had bought them for us, which was why the poorer children got less; it wasn’t that they were “naughty” and we “nice,” or that they somehow deserved less, their parents just couldn’t afford as much. In the end, this made the reality of Santa much less critical, disbelief less painful and deceptive, and fit with what the real world already looked like to me.