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JULY 22, 2010 5:38PM

Christmas in July?

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Ladyslipper has a post up about family Christmas traditions.  Her reaction to my comment made me think I didn’t understand what she meant.  But it made me think, about one Christmas in particular.

7 at xmas

I must have been 10, judging by the age of the youngest kid in this picture.  I’m second from the right, the one with the biggest smile.

I remember sitting on the couch on Christmas morning, watching the other kids open gifts.  I had already opened mine: the bright pastel knit pajamas everyone got, a tiny, embroidered coin purse (not that I had anything to put in it,) and a pair of seamed hose.  The hose would have been my first “nylons” and my mother bought them at the grocery store for 29 cents.  There was no garter belt or anything to hold them up with.  I suspect they were a pair she had bought for herself.

My mother sat down next to me and in a supplicating and confidential tone told me that she knew I “would understand and the little kids wouldn’t be able to.”  Apparently she had so little money she had to choose one kid not to buy for. As she spoke I was watching my older sister open a very nice gift I envied.  I didn’t say anything. I thought it was important not to be jealous, not to feel sorry for myself.  Mom's tone made me feel special.  In our family org chart, I’m in the box labeled “sucker.”
me at 10

 I still remember the flimsy, synthetic feel of those pajamas.  This was the time when discount department stores were the hot new thing.  I think ours was called “Atlantic Mills” and even when I was only ten and fascinated by the immensity of the warehouse layout and the novelty merchandise piled in plywood bins, I thought the place was creepy and smelled bad.  Following behind my father, pushing a grocery cart (another novelty  – grocery carts in a department store) I was awed as he selected 7 plastic bagged pairs of pajamas in different sizes and colors and casually tossed them in the cart.  I'd never seen something as luxurious and unnecessary as pajamas bought in quantity before.

I wore the hose to church that day using a garter belt of my mother’s and later on ripped a big hole in one knee climbing up on a kitchen counter to get at the cracker box full of fudge.  There always was and is fudge with walnuts at Christmas.  Fudge, loads of cookies, pickled herring, a big turkey dinner with candied sweet potatoes and fruit salad (canned fruit cocktail mixed with unsweetened whipped cream – an every holiday essential in my family.)  I think the cousins from Up North came.  We took a family picture in our new pajamas before bed.  It was a happy, busy Christmas.

Money was a problem then but I think my mother just forgot to get me anything.

Over time we’ve all given and got more, we’re fully engaged in the commercialism of Christmas and the consumerism of our times.  My mother sneers at the idea of charity gifts like heifer.org and the nieces and nephews spend Christmas Day engaged in vigorous trade in gift cards.  My mother’s living room is crowded with stacks and piles of brightly wrapped packages by the time of the gift opening ritual which now takes place after an early dinner. 


for illustration only
not my mother's house
(there'd be way more presents)

Literally hundreds of gifts must each be opened individually and displayed for all to see though over time we've all realized that the key is showing it to Mom.  She is 86 and is still giddy as a little child about the material aspects of the holiday, even while complaining without stop about the shopping burden.  Underlying all of it, there are messages.  Who likes whom this year, who deserves how much, who thinks whose kids are spoiled and therefore not deserving of a gift (or just the very cheapest token?)  Who's rich?  Who's needy?  Who spends too much? Who is sitting there not getting anything while trying to show enthusiasm for everything?  Who isn’t responding correctly (thereby wounding mom deeply?)  If you're a teenager with a drivers license how fast can you get the hell out?

It's another of those endlessly iconic American scenes that can appear prosperous and loving from the outside but is underlaid by the all too normal ugliness of dynamic family dysfunction.

Whether it was the lessons of that Christmas or just because it was the '70's, I knew that it wasn't the gifts, giving or getting, that was important to me about Christmas and somehow or other I taught my kids accordingly.


My favorite Christmas story.  My second daughter was 6 or so at the time of the Cambodian massacre.  She asked me why Santa didn't just take food to the starving kids in Cambodia.  (Think fast, mom.)  I told her Santa doesn't really deal in food so much, just treats and toys and special extras.
She wasn't wild about my explanation but she wrote a letter to Santa asking him from now on to take the oranges and candies she usually found in her stocking and the bowls of nuts and candies he left under our tree and drop them off with anyone he found in Cambodia.  (Not the herring!  The herring wasn't on her radar thank god.)
Santa didn't leave anything edible at our house for quite a few years after that.


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I love your story. We have something in common. I'm the sucker in my family. Sounds like you have some great memories to share. I love non-fiction.-R-
I understood your comment perfectly, but if her response brought you back to write this, congratulations! and look what's in your stocking Nerdy... an EP! Beats nuts any day of the year!!
Marvelous story and I love that picture of you!
Christine: I'm told I think too much and I'm going through an introspective period of upping that ... scary.

Gabby: EP O.M.G. What a shock. You don't think anyone in my family reads OS, do you?

O'Really: oh, really? (Sorry. That came out on its own.) Thanks. It's one of my favorites. Such a smile.
Your childhood Christmas story makes me kind of sad. Just all the crush of greed and oneupsmanship and, well, animal nature of humanity. Don't mind me; I'm just in a mood. Your post precisely captures the feeling of ennui I've been trapped in today.
Bonnie, that girl is now an amazing woman and I'm very proud of her. She's not sentimental, even then it came out as being pissed off at how stupid it was for American children to be wallowing in luxury while people were starving. She really sort of demanded to know why Santa would do that. Her daughter is only about 19 months old but already shows signs of being a lot like that.
Lainey, in my introspective mood I have been struck by how happy I was that day and how I filtered out my mother's toxicity. Because the family really is all about her.
Great story, great pictures, and an EP! And you pimped my blog! It doesn't get much better than that. But wait: when I was a kid we shopped at Atlantic Mills, too. OS won't let me send PMs right now, or I'd tell you where I grew up. We must have been neighbors, neighbor.
Ladyslipper, I only remember going there that one time - it must have been in the suburbs, don't you think? So terribly exotic to this east Lake Street Rat.
Yes, the north suburbs, and "exotic" doesn't do justice to the place. It was nothing like the discount stores of today. It was like a circus - I almost expected to see sawdust on the floor. We hung out there constantly when I was old enough.
N.C.: I love your way of telling this story, so casually, without melodrama, and with your dry wit. In my mother's case, we always had to worry about whether she'd like a present--because she was always disappointed, almost like a kid herself.

I know what you mean about the groaning load of gifts a contemporary Christmas brings--it is not a good object lesson for children. Rated.
Look at your adorable face! So cute. :)

What a great story. I love reading about other people's family dynamics (it makes me feel fairly normal!) and you've written about yours beautifully. Just one thing, though... Herring?

Congrats on the EP and cover. Woo hoo!
I hold clear, unpretentious storytelling in the highest esteem and this was a sweetie. Nice pace, told with grace.
I'll share a thought that occurred to me yesterday. Why is it, I wondered, so easy to love children so strongly and unconditionally? It's obvious that they're open and trusting. Also, before they begin to develope independence and autonomy, they're 'needy' in the matter of love. But here's what's so beautiful about the arrangement--- they are able to accept as much love as any nurturing person can muster without refusing one iota of it the way adults commonly do. They're like bottomless wells with no limits on their 'gas tanks'. We can love them until we're on empty and they will use every drop.
Martha, Thanks for your kind words. My mother taught me that you can learn as much from a bad example as from a good one. I still try not to be a burden to my kids. ;-)

Lisa, I outgrew that cuteness so long ago. Pickled herring's kind of a Nordic thing, I think though in the east I had to depend on Jewish areas for it.
Lary9, thank you. Clear and unpretentious are both so important! Sadly, not all adults are as able or as willing to give them what they need.
I think your second daughter IS Santa Claus. And if not, well, there's no better candidate. I like sad tales with triumphant endings. Great memoir! Well-deserved EP.
Steve, I spend Christmas with her now that she is in possession of the only grandchild. One recent year I sported a really ugly shiner I gave myself when I went with her to clean cat cages at her local shelter on Christmas Eve. It was her normal schedule and didn't even occur to her to skip it for the holiday. She's a rich source of stories.
enjoyed your story - could read every word and didnt have to skip between lines, got a sense of another time, another place, another culture and of the happiness of that child. sucker? you are tough and generous and considerate and humane - if you think of yourself as sucker, it might prompt a change of behavior :) and you might actually become a 'sucker' in the dracula sense ;) am sure you dont want that?

liked Larry9's comment about loving children. nice to know you Larry.