What are your favorite childhood memories of Christmas?
I remember getting up early and pouncing on my stocking, which was always filled with a few pieces of candy, a few small toys or trinkets and a lot of fresh fruit and nuts. Santa would also leave one or two gifts, often with a bow on top but seldom fully wrapped.
The ongoing joke in my parents’ home was that Santa was a health nut. This is why he always delivered fresh fruits and nuts — he wanted us to be healthy.
The truth about the fruit, however, dated back to the years before I was born, when our large family had many children living at home and few resources. Placing fruit in the stocking was a way for my cash-strapped parents to kill two birds with one stone. Kids had to eat and Santa had to deliver. Since we were rural, animals and crops kept our pantry and freezer full, but fresh, out-of-season produce remained a luxury.
And Santa’s practicality was also evident in his gift-giving. He often brought new boots, shoes, or other pieces of clothing that were not easily handed down from one sibling to another. Sports equipment or items needed for extracurricular activities like art or band were also common.
The one superfluous gift I remember Santa bringing was a Barbie-branded record player with a built in karaoke microphone. I was about 8 years old, and definitely on the cusp of “believer” status. I’m fairly sure Santa’s helper was one of my older siblings, seeking to equalize the gift playing field.
I have one sister who goes all out for Christmas. To her credit, she purchases items throughout the year, and has never gone into debt as a result of her gifting. But she does like to give, and the year of the record player was when she and her family were spending Christmas at my parents’ home.
In addition to being from a very large family, I’m also the youngest, which means I’m closer in age to nieces and nephews than I am to my older siblings. There are even a few nieces and nephews — my brothers’ and sisters’ children — who are older than I am.
Without a helper stepping in that Christmas, it would have been difficult to understand why some of those nieces and nephews had gifts, mostly toys and electronics, stacked up to the ceiling while I got some oranges, walnuts and a pair of cowboy boots. The record player, which I’d been eyeballing for months, eased the sting.
Let me be clear that I was under no illusion growing up that I was part of an affluent family. Because my parents were older and retired while I was in school, I spent a large portion of my childhood and teen years receiving a Social Security check. To this day I cannot stomach American cheese or powdered milk, because of the years spent eating the commodity versions.
As I grew older, even before I could legally take a job, I found ways to make spending money — mowing lawns, baby-sitting, milking cows and even detailing cars — but, as a child, there were few options. And, most of the time, I wasn’t even aware that I was a poorer kid.
Because my parents were retired, they were some of the most actively involved parents in the school district. I can’t remember a time when they missed a school function. Neighboring parents knew there would be adult supervision at our home, and it became a safe zone for after school gatherings. The animals and the land were also good to us and, despite the extra chores, we were all thankful.
But Christmas, with its heavy commercial emphasis, loomed large each year.
I’d return to school and visit with classmates who received much larger, more expensive gifts from Santa. It was hard to explain the luxury of an orange to a friend excited about receiving the latest toy. Going strictly on lore, I believed for a time that we simply weren’t good enough. But because we were good people, such reasoning was difficult to swallow. I rationalized that since we were carted off to church anytime the door was unlocked, Santa didn’t like people who went to church — that maybe the whole Baby Jesus thing was competition.
Of course, I learned the secrets of Santa when I grew older, but as a child it was difficult to grasp why the Man in Red seemed so generous to some and not to others.
That’s why, when I became a parent, I’ve kept Santa within the limits of practicality. Larger, more expensive gifts are purchased by the family and appropriately tagged as such. Fresh fruit still is tucked into stockings at our house.
Some of our children’s friends have monetarily more than we do and some have less, and that’s just the way life is. But Santa is about magic and fantasy, and shouldn’t be just another stark reality of disparity.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Dec. 21, 2014.