I grew up poor. Not dirt poor, mind you: our bills were paid and we were always clean and fed. In fact, my sister and I both played in the orchestra, took dance lessons, and were involved in school clubs and sports. Those, however, were the only real extravagences in our family. Our clothes were clean and well kept, but were either second hand or bought at a discount store. Our food was healthy and filling but was homemade from generic brands. The television had two network stations and our cars were always old.
But Christmas… Christmas was always an absolute joy and wonder. We strung popcorn and cranberries for the tree and hung a hodge-podge of ornaments: our own handmade creations intermingled with discount baubles and my great-grandfather’s antique oraments from Germany. On top would be one of the tree-toppers my mother collected.
I remember when my sister and I were three and five, sneaking into the front hallway and seeing the footprints Santa left behind in magical, non-melting snow. The next year my sister and I each received a set of doll furniture: my mother made wooden chairs, couches, and beds and tiny foam cushions. Mine were uphosltered in green, my sister’s red. It wasn’t Barbie™furniture, but we didn’t have actual Barbie™dolls either.
There were many other such gifts, the kind lovingly made in the spirit of what my family calls ‘a heartfelt Christmas’. The homemade comforter sets for our twin beds, the huge personalized stockings that were large enough for us to stand in, the baby-doll hand puppets with blankets (light hair and blue eyes for mine, brown hair and eyes on my sister’s). I still have all three of those gifts.
As I grew up I became more and more aware of the schism between my family and those of the children around me. On one level this made me extremely uncomfortable, that classic teenage angst about not being like everyone else. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help but notice that no one else had ever received gifts like I had. They had the latest toy (sometimes more than one of them), but none of them had been immortalized in a hand puppet, the only one like it in the world.
It was during these teen years, trying to reconcile the need to fit in with the disdain I had for those same children, that I started truly buying gifts. Before then, it was always my mother having us pick out something for her and my father at the store and adding it to the cart with everything else. Now, though, my sister and I were each given $25 to buy our gifts for friends, teachers, each other, and our parents.
One such holiday season, my sister and I were in Goodwill. My mother was at work at the art store down the street and we were keeping ourselves busy until it was time to go home. Unlike most teens we actually browsed through the housewares area: we both have collections of antique dishes that were started by our grandmother with her yard sale finds. Mine is the Fireking ‘golden shell’ pattern.
While checking for our dishes, we found a dusty box on a shelf marked 50¢. Out of curiosity we opened it and inside we found a glass tree-topper, an oblong silver ornament with blue accents. Underneath the cotton batting was the original sales receipt, dated December 1959, for $3.95. This tree topper had been bought by someone just in time for what had been my mother’s first Christmas.
It was the most perfect gift we had ever seen.
My mother cried when she opened it and found the receipt. She beamed when we told her how much we paid for it (as the story was too good to not share). And she almost knocked down the tree when she tried to put it on top of the already decorated tree.
Now that I am older and living the original American dream of a life that is more stable and secure than that of my parents, I try to keep in mind the things that have always made Christmas magical for my family. A hand-made puppet that looked at me with my own eyes, baking and cooking for the Christmas Eve feast with my extended family, and a 50¢ gift that made my mother cry with joy.
For me, that is the meaning of Christmas.