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.
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.