Four Christmases

Christmas gifts. Photo by Kelvin Kay.

My clearest childhood Christmas memory is of my father. I don’t recall the toys we had received that morning. We did get toys; we always did, and we appreciated them even as we didn’t appreciate the accompanying gifts of clothing.

It was early in my life, and I was playing, as were my brother and my sister. My mother was watching us. Then my father appeared, coming down the stairs with a heavy tramp. He was tall, lean, and somewhat pale, with dark hair. He was furious. He yelled at us to be quiet, and we had all learned to be attentive when he gave such orders. Never in public, but we were children and hadn’t considered that he was ever restraining himself. Instead, we were always ready for another time when his temper might explode and he would loosen the belt or put my brother through a wall.

My childhood was not a series of abuses. Times when I drew his attention could be followed by a rough grin and tousled hair or a strap across my rear until I couldn’t walk, and I had no way of knowing which would come. The course of action was obvious: mostly, I stayed out of my father’s way and he stayed clear of me. I had many good Christmas times. But the one which stands out for me is the terror of a Christmas morning, afraid to make a single sound while being encouraged by my mother to keep playing.

Forward in time to my most memorable teen Christmas. The divorce is long since finalized and my mother is making ends meet by putting in long hours at the hospital. She has worked weeks of overtime to get hundreds of dollars ahead and wishes to give us all something special. A few weeks prior she’d asked what one item I’d ask for, if I could choose a present without concern for the price.

At thirteen, I’ve been spending a lot of time at friends’ houses after school. They have houses, and we have an apartment. My younger sister is with us now, a three year old force of destruction, and sitting inside with her is rarely appealing. I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time playing pool in a friend’s basement; while I’m not good, I’m no longer terrible. I tell my mother, “a pool table”, and then follow it with, “but those are way too expensive and we couldn’t get one in here anyway.” I tell her I’d probably just choose some books.

Waiting for me on Christmas morning, completely unexpected, is a pool table. It stands on spindly legs with balls the size of Gobstopper candies… a children’s pool table, designed for seven or eight year olds who wish to emulate the game they’re watching older people play. It’s a paltry alternative for a kid who is practicing the real game. I appreciate getting something but there’s also disappointment; perhaps I shouldn’t have answered her honestly. And, of course, she notices that I don’t really enjoy the gift. I do appreciate the thought, but at thirteen it’s difficult to convey that. It’s a case of crossed wires, a Gift of the Magi on the emotional level.

Fast forward twenty years. I’m out of the Navy, moved from New Jersey down to Texas to find a better job and am sharing costs on a house with one of my best friends from the service. As two adults, his expectation is that we’re each going to get one gift and pass it along, perhaps just in a bag without wrapping (we’re both guys, after all. Besides, my wrapping skills are atrocious). No tree, just as basic as it gets. Instead, I set my alarm extra-early so I can be up before he is, well before morning mass.

Throughout the house I place small gifts… a book, a bottle of alcohol, a cd, a game… and affix a Christmas ornament to the wall above their locations. I know what we tell ourselves: that as adults we don’t need a bunch of gifts, that it’s enough to simply be acknowledged, and there is absolute truth in that. There is also truth in the statement that most people enjoy the surprise of unwrapping multiple items.

Without him directly acknowledging it, I know I’ve been successful from his expression. I’m in a position where I can experience the pleasure of giving unexpected gifts, and it makes for a great holiday.

Now, it’s Christmas morning again. I will be seeing, once more, my daughter tearing into her gifts on Christmas day. She hasn’t received as many as usual from my wife and me because her one big present arrived a couple of weeks ago… an adult hedgehog. This will not affect her morning. Normally, as the only young girl in the family tree, she is showered with gifts from multiple grandparents as well as the extended “family” of close friends who have watched her grow. We’ve seen her get stunned by the sheer quantity of items in the past.

Instead, there will be a manageable number, and then we will watch some classic holiday specials together before going into the kitchen to act as soux-chefs and garbagemen for my wife as she cooks. It’s everything I could have wished for as a child, although the bookstore trappings leave us about as far from Norman Rockwell as might be imagined.

Independent of the religious reasons for the holiday and of the chance afforded family and friends to get together, the simple gift exchange is one of the lasting traditions of Christmas. I haven’t seen all of the variants, but as I’ve presented, I’ve seen many of them. Bad times have led to good, even if they required some perseverance.

I hope the holiday finds all of you well, and if it does not, that you can press through your difficulties and have better years to come. You are all gifts to me this year. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.