When I was young we were poor. I grew up in a family of eight kids. My father was an automobile mechanic, so there wasn’t a lot of money, but we always had a Christmas tree. Sometimes Dad would scrape the money together to buy one. In the lean years we’d go out and cut our own–if one of the neighbors would leave their left their house for a long enough period of time. “Most people plant those evergreens to close to their foundations anyway. In a way we’re doing them a favor,” Dad always said.
Which window we put the tree in front of depended on where the tree came from. Dad always said that putting it where the neighbor had to look at it was just rubbing their noses in it. We didn’t want to be cruel, and the more they saw it, the better chance there was that they would recognize it.
The Christmas meal was always a feast. We had turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes scalloped corn, pecan pie… It would have been nice if we could have had all of it in the same year. I remember the year of the gravy: tasty but not very filling.
Everyone exchanged presents. The ones we kids gave to each other were usually homemade. The only time I remember being disappointed was the year my sister gave me an air guitar. I had been hoping for a set of air drums, but I tried to receive it in the spirit that it was given. I gave out my usual Christmas wedgies and Wet Willies.
I’m joking of course, except for the part about us not having much money. For gifts we usually received socks and underwear for sure. We needed new ones anyway, and what better time to give them to us kids. In addition, each of us got one big present. When I say big I mean something that might cost five or ten bucks. Even in today’s dollars, it wasn’t much, certainly not the presents worth hundreds of dollars that kids don’t balk at asking for nowadays.
What I remember about those Christmases are all-day Monopoly games and building a snow nativity in the front yard. I remember all of us singing Christmas carols–even the old man who couldn’t carry a tune with a Mack truck and a flat-bed trailer. He’d sing along sounding like an off-key bullfrog, but it was Christmas so nobody cared.
I don’t remember much about the presents I got. In fact, the only present I really remember getting was a bike. When everyone had finished opening their presents on Christmas morning, all I had gotten was the obligatory socks and underwear. The old man stood by the door between the kitchen and living room trying his best to keep a grin off his face as he watched me, so I knew something was up.
When he couldn’t contain himself any longer he finally said, “I think Santa might have left something out by the back door.” Like a flash I was through the house and out the back door. There on our cement step leaning against the house was the ugliest bike I have ever seen. The tires were as big around as my arm. It had been hand-painted a grease brown, and it had horizontal white stripes running irregularly the length of the bars with no symmetry whatsoever. I’m sure the old man had picked it up at some household auction for a buck or two, and then sanded it down and repainted it. I knew even then that I would never find a bike that ugly again, and I have not to this day. I learned to ride on that bike, and I kept it for three years until I bought a used bike from a friend with birthday money I got from my grandparents. It’s the only present I remember, because the old man had to plan for that present. He had to buy it and hide it from me. He had to sand it and paint it while I was gone or late night when I was sleeping. Knowing that he had gone through that much trouble meant more to me than slapping down some bills on a counter to buy a new bike.
I guess I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before or been said in better ways. It is not the presents that you will remember in thirty years, it’s the people, it’s the feelings. So whatever you get for Christmas be grateful for it, even if it’s an ugly old bike or a Christmas wedgie.