I don’t remember my first Christmas. Who does? By my fifth Christmas, though, my father was back from the war (WWII), I had a little brother, and we had moved, following my Dad’s work, to a new town and home. I know, also , that I don’t remember any Christmas before then. Was there no tree during the war? Were there no presents? Probably, I just don’t remember because I was too young.
Christmas in our new home was very Spartan. Dad had a job, worked every day, and we decorated a tree, but our Christmas was less showy and the opulence was more noticeable at the neighbor’s.
In retrospect I know that my folks couldn’t have done anything else. Both of my parents grew up very poor. Both grew up on farms. Life was hard and precarious. There were many years when my father’s Christmas consisted of getting a stocking at the chimney. Mother’s childhood consisted of living on serial tenant farms. There were years when she stayed home and worked in stead of going to school.
My father was salutatorian of his high school class (his sister was valedictorian). Mother did very well. It didn’t matter. Working took precedence and being able to eat was more important than education.
All of this is background to the story of how I ceased to believe in Santa and came to realize that Christmas was much more than a guy in a funny suit.
I noticed early that the neighbor kids got more than we did. They got tangerines in their stocking. I was grown before I had a tangerine. I had a deep seated sense of fairness even then, and it just didn’t seem plausible that Santa (sort of a god surrogate) would play favorites.
Sometime during my first year of grade school I was told by an older student that there was no Santa Claus. I was so relieved. My faith in justice was restored. I came home and told mother what I had heard. Her direction was not to spoil Christmas for my younger brother.
Over the years I got a used bicycle hand painted with red paint complete with brush marks and my stocking got hard candy, nuts, and fruit that was no more unusual than an orange. Every Christmas I got a new pocket knife (I had always either broken last year's or lost it) and a new box of shotgun shells. That is 25 shells. We hunted for food. I ate squirrel and rabbit several days a week. Only having 25 shells for the season made everyone choose their shots.
The most wonderful Christmas gift any of us got came sometime in the junior high school years. Carefully tearing open the wrapping paper (paper that had also been used last year) my brother, father and I all pulled out a set of handmade pajamas. The pajamas had been made from chicken feed sacks, but that isn’t what made them special. We had clothes made of feed sacks. What made these special was that the four quarters of our pajama tops and bottoms were each made from a different feed sack pattern. Mother confessed that she just couldn’t find enough sacks with the same pattern, so we got pajamas “of many colors”.
We modeled our pajamas, camped it up, and laughed until we were in tears. That was the Christmas when I came to know that Jesus wasn’t the little plastic doll in the crèche. Jesus wasn’t the Anglo-Saxon looking dude on the wall at church. Santa wasn’t a North Pole denizen who gave presents, unfairly, to good little boys and girls, but instead was an ideal; an ideal that inspired individuals to think about how they might give more than they could afford, and inspire others to share unselfishly with those that they love.