I suppose it’s not fair that I blame my mother for ruining that Christmas. I must have been eight or nine, old enough not to “believe” anymore, old enough to understand that whatever my mother bought would be hidden somewhere in the house. I was just being a normal kid, curious, with hope in my heart.
But if my mother had been a normal mom, she would have hidden that doll better. In fairness, it couldn’t have been easy to hide a three-foot baby doll, with the size and proportions of a real child so it could be dressed in toddler clothes.
But really, Mom, in the bathroom cupboard barely covered by the stiff, gray bath towels? I was sorry right away that I had found it, and I learned what happens to delight when surprise is erased. About the dread of faking surprise on Christmas Eve when we opened our gifts.
Maybe that Christmas was also the one when my mother used needles as fine as toothpicks to knit Barbie Doll clothes. It is only now, remembering those clothes, that it occurs to me that my mother must have waited until I went to bed to knit them so they would be a surprise, but I remember that I was surprised, and disappointed, that I didn’t get the slutty black strapless sequin dress I saw at Woolworths, the one that came with the microphone.
But, oh, the anticipation of opening those presents on Christmas Eve afternoon when Dad finally got home from his foundry’s Christmas party. No matter what was in those packages, it was more than what I had. We weren’t poor, but middle class kids just didn’t have much.
My mother often made me something. The Christmas I was sixteen, Mom made me a grey fur-trimmed maxi-coat that had a Dr. Zhivago hood going on, and it closed with metal frogs. It never fit exactly right, because of course Mom had to sew it when I wasn’t around, but I loved it and felt very sexy and sophisticated when I wore it to Rick’s uncle’s Christmas dinner.
After I opened my gifts with my parents and brother, we headed to my grandparents’ two doors down. First we had our mock turtle soup dinner, and once all of the dishes were washed and the tables were set for Christmas breakfast – this took forever, it seemed – the door to the family room was opened to reveal the bounty of a very generous Santa. You had to sidle in to find a seat; the entire center of the room was mounded with packages.
Most gifts you received in those days were surprises, but not too surprising. You might ask for a sweater, but you never know what color or pattern you’d get. Or earrings, but you didn’t know if they’d be silver or gold, studs or dangles.
Back then, you rarely returned gifts, unless they were damaged or the wrong size. You loved the gift because you loved the giver, and you always made an effort to use the gifts in their presence.
My crazy–in-mostly-a-good-way aunt really didn’t care about your wish lists. She bought what fancied her, like the year she bought all the adult children gingham nightshirts. My dad and his siblings and their spouses with the ankle-length nightshirts on. Wish I could find that picture.
My grandmother had an algorithm for determining her budget for each gift—a certain amount for children and their spouses, another for her grandchildren, and the smallest amount for her great-grandchildren. She would always buy a gift from your wish list, but if the gift did not cost the budgeted amount, you might find a pair of stockings or knee socks or two dollar bills in the box to make up the difference.
Until I was middle-age, we bought gifts for everyone on the family tree, from the grandparents’ branch down: all the aunts and uncles and cousins.
Kids were expected to shop and pay for gifts for all of their relatives. My brother and I cycled through the usual kid crafts to create potholders, tiled trivets, and baked marble lavaliers. There were the coupon books for services—like car-washing or snow-shoveling or dish washing — that were never redeemed. I knew my Uncle Kenny liked cigars, so I went to the drug store where nobody had qualms about selling a box to a twelve-year-old. For my Grandma Mootsie, it had to be something purple.
And then there was the year that, as a joke, I cut out metallic paper in the shape and size of stockings and cut tiny diamonds in them. These I gave to my mother who made fun of the patterned stockings I and my peers wore.
As a young mother, I had more time than money, so I made counted cross-stitch pictures, macramé plant hangers, pinafore aprons, bathrobes, afghans, stuffed animals, and homemade cookies. I remember for the first time feeling something different about Christmas: worried about the expense; fretting about getting everything done; tired of dragging whiney kids around.
At some point, the family consensus was that it was all too much: too much shopping, too much wrapping, too much money, too much hauling stuff around. The kids, we adults complained, were getting spoiled, greedy, and picky. The adults needed nothing and wanted nothing. After my grandparents died, the adults stopped buying for each other. The kids under 18 had a gift exchange among themselves. It was so much easier, we all agreed.
My mother always said at Christmas, “I don’t need a thing,” and when I cleaned out my parents’ house, I realized she wasn’t kidding. Yet we still give gifts to my dad, his wife, and my mother-in-law. Some pajamas, perhaps, or motion-sensor lights to light the way to the bathroom, a waffle pad topper for an weary mattress, a kitchen stool with arms. Everyone is polite and genuinely appreciative for the effort, but maybe we’ve lost the ability to be surprised anymore.
Now Rick and I tell our kids we want nothing, “really.” This year Rick told them that if they were hell-bent on spending money, they should make donations to the victims of the Gatlinburg fire.
Our adult daughters and their spouses don’t really enjoy surprises, I don’t think. They are all self-sufficient thirty-somethings who buy what they need. If we press them for a Christmas wish list, they send us links that make shopping oh-so-simple. My older daughter said, “I know you don’t like to do this, but I guess you could get us gift cards.” So we essentially spent money to buy money to give them money.
It occurs to me that all generations experience this winding down of Christmas. I look back now and think about how hard Christmas must have been for my elders: how tedious it must have been to supplement gifts with even uppers; how exhausting wrapping that mountain of gifts; how frustrating satisfying the tastes of bratty grandkids. As my wise friend Claudia says, it’s more fun watching the magic show than being the magician.
While watching This is Us from my La-Z-Boy recliner, I clicked my way through Christmas shopping. I could have had the gifts wrapped at the Amazon warehouse, and how easy would that be? But outsourcing wrapping doesn’t seem quite right.
I will take some time wrapping gifts and tying my famous bows. And then
I will put the gifts, some as small as gift cards, on the dining room table, since we don’t “do” Christmas trees anymore.
It’s tempting to say, “Make Christmas great again,” but, really, it still is great. It’s just different. As time marches on, change is inevitable.
What changes the most is that, as we mature, we understand in a very deep way that the gifts were never the foundation of Christmas. It was the people sitting around that mountain of gifts.
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
― Dr. Seuss,