Happy Holler Daze, Chapter One: There’s No Present Like Time
The pretty leaves are falling. Halloween is a distant memory. Lawn furniture is going into storage. And now … oh, no, here come The Holidays!
For those in charge of the holiday plans, this time of the year can be anxiety-producing. First, there is the culinary coordination of Thanksgiving. Then, seemingly before we’ve digested the feast we’ve shared with family and friends, there’s Black Friday. We put ourselves into this mode of gift buying, wrapping, decorating, cooking, spending, spending, spending, like a madness taking us over, and call it … hmmmm … consumerism syndrome. Go to any retail venue and watch the parents with pinched faces trying to secure a must-have item.
We’ve been trained to believe we need all of these things – these bits and pieces made in factories all over the globe – in order to be happy, feel appreciated, feel loved. Let me tell you what it really is: a load of marketing crap! Yes, I, too, will do some shopping. I, too, will reminisce over Christmases past where ripped wrapping paper was strewn over the floor and exhausted grown-ups were passed out after the holiday meal. I’ll participate in the madness to a certain degree; no one wants to be called a Scrooge. But I’ve come to believe that Christmas should mean something else, not a mad dash to the finish line. Christmas in bygone eras was rather different.
As I recall, my father always looked forward to the dinner. He also appreciated a package of handkerchiefs, a box of chocolate-covered cherries, a pair of woolen socks. As a boy born into abject poverty in 1918, Christmas celebrations were Biblically based. The mass marketing that turned this time of the year into stockholder sugar plum dreams hadn’t materialized yet, if you’ll forgive the pun. He enjoyed simple foods, along with nuts ready for the cracking, while at the ancient upright piano, his mother and grandmother played the old-time Christmas carols: “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” “We Three Kings,” “Joy To The World.” I wish he were alive today so I could make him his favorite mince pie and hold his hand just once more. But his time ran out nearly two years ago.
My mother’s childhood began nearly a decade later in 1923. Her childhood memories of Christmas past include fine meals laid out by her hardworking mother, whose kitchen talents are now legendary. They might have spent most of the winter months eating baked beans, potato soup, and cranberry sauce sandwiches, but for Christmas there was always a leading star on the table. Whether it was a beef roast or turkey, my grandmother somehow produced it for her children. Her father would travel to New Bedford and bring home oranges or apples and a favorite treat, rock candy. These were the highlights of their holiday celebration, as I don’t think gifts were available or even popularly given in their economic strata at that time.
With parents whose holiday backgrounds were so modest, you won’t be surprised to learn that when they could, they did provide everything to their children. Therefore, my Christmas memories are much richer in terms of stuff, loot, gifts under the tree.
There would always be the stocking, not hung by the chimney with care because we never had a fireplace, but instead pinned to the back of an upholstered armchair. In the toe, we’d find a 50-cent piece, a delicious apple, an orange, some candies or nuts, and rising out of the top a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa. When the year had been profitable for Dad, we had plenty of gifts. There were, of course, those gifts that were still considered necessary, like new underwear, socks, or pajamas. Yet these sour notes were leavened by a Shirley Temple doll, a Howdy Doody puppet, or in later years for my brother, a cowboy play set that included the Lone Ranger and Tonto. One year, I got the gift-of-all-gifts for a little girl: toy kitchen appliances, pots and pans, and real fake food. I was in kid heaven!
When things didn’t go so well for Dad’s business, somehow my mother still managed finances well enough to give us something we wished for from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. As we got older and understood the miracle of Christmas wasn’t Santa, but instead our parents’ ability to provide a warm, comfortable home for us, we tempered our expectations and still they strived to give us what they never had had themselves – possessions.
Today, my 90-year-old mother understands that possessions are meaningless. Sure, we had the momentary innocent joy of playing with toys while our parents looked on confident they had done the right thing and spent money that might have found better use in a savings account. But when she was a young wife and mother in post-WWII America, she, along with dad, embraced the growing belief that possessions denoted success. She knows better now, but no one is listening. I wish she could still walk so I could bring her home with me, have her surrounded by my growing extended family, and sit beside her in the glow of the Christmas lights. Her time is running out.
Because I was trained to be a consuming Christian, when my son came along I tried to provide for him as my parents did for me at Christmas time. The big difference is that I also understood the importance of time. Since I worked outside the home from his infancy, I appreciated my time with him. Time was the biggest gift and my undivided attention is really all he wanted.
All those possessions I gave him not only for Christmas but other celebrations, too, are now stored in plastic containers. Matchbox cars, Lincoln Logs, Star Wars spaceships and characters, Batman and Robin figures, The Six Million Dollar Man set, cases of storybooks, barrels of Legos, all stand in silent testimony of my love. What does he remember most of all these things? The time we spent together playing with them. Time.
We still have holiday parties and give gifts. With five grand-daughters (now all nearly grown), one grandson (four years old), and three great-grandchildren, we’ve had to be more conservative in our gift-giving policy. It isn’t what they want, anyway, not really. What they want is to come together as a family and tell stories about staying overnight with us when they were little kids and all the fun things we did together. They want us to look at them now and be proud of their accomplishments, talk to them about their future hopes, and maybe make their favorite holiday fare for the dinner table. They want us, not possessions.
Yes, I love a sparkly Christmas tree adorned with my grandmother’s antique ornaments at the very top. I love lights shining on a dark Christmas Eve when all is still and we once again wait for the arrival of Christmas morning. But what we want most of all is the gift of our children’s time, to have them slow down from their busy schedules and say, “It’s good to see you.”
As you begin the preparations for your family celebrations, whether they are religiously based or otherwise, maybe among the items you’ll be giving to your loved ones will be a tiny box into which you’ve placed a note saying something to the effect of “This is a gift certificate worth more than money can buy – I give you my time, redeemable as you wish, but please don’t wait too long.”
By Marilou Newell