Off the Porch: The lean Christmas

Dec. 13, 2013 @ 06:24 PM

As I get older, it gets harder for me to tell someone what I want for Christmas. When I was a younger man, the list of things I wanted was much longer than the list of people who were going to give me something. Now, everyone is asking what I want and I can’t think of a thing. In our family, we decided to back off on presents and try to do something for those with less than us.
It’s true that I’ve had 61 years to accumulate the things I want, and while I don’t have much money, I’ve enough fishing rods, guns, and other hunting and fishing equipment to start a pretty good store. In fact, I have enough shirts to last the rest of my life and for the life of me, I can’t find underwear that’s worth buying so I know someone else won’t buy underwear that suits me.
When I was about 10, I figured out that Christmas was not about what Santa Claus put under the tree. The year that I am remembering, my Mom and Dad had experienced a rough year. Money was tight, though we lived so simply I hadn’t really noticed. I normally got one big item for Christmas, like a BB gun, an archery set, or a slot car set. I got only one of these each year, not all of them as would happen today.
The lean year was different. Normally, on a Friday night before Christmas, Daddy would invite me to Lowder Supply Company, where he worked. The idea was that I could peruse the sporting goods and toy departments, and decide what I wanted for Christmas. I had enough sense to not ask for too much, because I knew it just wouldn’t happen. This year, there was no Friday night trip. I noticed this, but still didn’t expect a big change in the routine.
On this particular Christmas Morning, my sisters and I all found a lot less plunder under the tree than was the normal. There were 2 model car kits for me and I don’t remember what my sisters got, but it was of similar value. I still remember the pain in my Daddy and Mom’s voices when they explained that there just wasn’t enough money this year for a regular Christmas. I was old enough to know what that pain really meant to them and how it reflected the stress they were going through and how it hurt them to not be as generous as normal. I was amazed that year how Christmas, without the major new object of pleasure, meant just as much that year as it always had. I assumed correctly this was because I was growing up, and now I actually remember this Christmas more strongly now than any before or since.
As you get older, Christmas is more about giving than getting stuff. I have a hard time coming up with something for my grandsons, because I firmly believe that kids today get too much stuff to enjoy, but I want them to get something special. I remember the excitement of learning to shoot my bow or BB gun and I know that if I’d gotten both the same year, it wouldn’t have been the same.
The year my Mama died, I talked to the lady at the oil company that filled Mama’s oil tank for years. Mom passed away in October and I called to let them know about plans to keep enough oil in the tank to keep the house from freezing. Mrs. Beck told me how much her son loved to fill Mom’s oil tank around Christmas because Mom always gave him a box of cookies. Mama’s big joy in Christmas was in baking about 200 dozen cookies, yes, that’s not a typo, and boxing them up as gifts for everyone she knew.
She was constantly trying to come up with some kind of container that cost nothing to put the cookies in. For several years, the people at one of the Kentucky Fried Chicken stores gave her individual meal chicken boxes. As Christmas approached, her countertops were covered with KFC boxes filled with cookies, homemade party mix, and sometimes strawberry jelly canned in baby food jars. She gave one to everyone that came to her house any time around Christmas.
Since then, I’ve figured out that probably the reason that lean Christmas didn’t stifle my happiness was because I’d watched Mama and Daddy enough that I knew what really mattered. I guess that’s at least partly why I have such a hard time coming up with what I want for Christmas. If I could have any thing I wanted, it would be to re-live that lean Christmas with Mama and Daddy, and my sisters and brother, but I know that’s not possible. Today, my siblings are still here, and I have Cherie, my daughters and sons in law and grandkids; I’m surrounded by a whole new group of people to love now.
Garrison Keillor does a weekly radio show called The Prairie Home Companion. Part of it is about a mythical place, in Minnesota, called Lake Woebegone where “The women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.” The Lake Woebegone Christmas wish is about appreciating the place and the people around you. This year, I think I’ll go with that philosophy and wish for what I already have. I can’t imagine anything better. I’ll bet you have a better Christmas if you take that attitude as well.