My first Christmas memories seem to be of riding around San Francisco in a car with my mom and seeing giant neon Santa head displays on the stores.
And then we moved to California’s Central Valley and I recall my brother and sister pulling out a string or should I say tangle of lights and ornaments from a box in the living room.
They strung the lights around the tree my folks had bought off a lot – I don’t ever recall chopping one down up in the woods. Problem was, back then in the early 50s if one light bulb went out on one of those light strings, they all went out. But each light was a lot bigger than the ones you see today.
I remember in one house we lived in my brother and I slept out on the back porch. Dad had attempted to close it in from the winter cold with some semi-transparent mesh stuff that would diffuse some of the outside light. At four or five I guess I still believed in Santa Claus or at least I felt it in my best interests to do so. Late at night on a Dec. 24 I thought I saw Santa and his sleigh and reindeer, a kind of illusion from the diffused light coming through that mesh added to some self-delusion.
Through the years of my childhood, even after I had accepted that Santa was just a pretend thing, I was always puzzled that a lot of my classmates at school opened presents with their families on Christmas eve, rather than Christmas day.
It seems like all of my grade school teachers were brought up back east somewhere in snow country and assured us all we just didn’t know what Christmas was. There should be snow and toboggans and one-horse open sleighs with bells a jingling.
From my dealings with snow in my adult life, I’d say keep your snow, I’ll just take the gifts, please.
As a child, for sure, I never went wanting at Christmas. It did seem, though, that many of my little friends had a lot more presents and more expensive ones bestowed upon them. At the same time, I have to think back now and realize that probably many of my classmates got very little. I think we had a good cross section of economic strata in my classes, from the wealthy to the extremely poor. The poor ones probably did not say much.
I learned early on that not everyone was as fortunate as I. I lived in a home where there was never a question of whether there would be a meal on the table or a roof over our heads or non hand-me-down clothes to wear, or presents under the tree (not saying my folks did not have to struggle with that problem).
But I was only in first grade when I found out not every kid lived in a safe and secure home. I happened to walk past my own home one day and go home with a friend of mind, at his invitation. We both had notes pinned on us – something about a PTA meeting, I imagine.
When we went into his house we were not so pleasantly greeted by a man and a woman. They seemed a little cross. My friend mentioned something about the note, and the man ripped it off his shirt and demanded: “what the heck is this!?” He read it and grunted something. I don’t recall what the woman said. I got out of there as quickly as possible. I had never experienced grownups acting that way.
I had another similar experience. A little girl wanted me to walk with her to her home. I was a little reluctant, but she was insistent. So I did. We got to the old apartment building where she lived up a flight of inside stairs. At the entrance to the stairwell was a ratty couch with a spring popping out, and I recall seeing a hoe leaning up against the wall. “I used to have a little puppy,” she said. “But my dad killed it with that hoe.”
I got of there as fast as I could.
These were just some thoughts on my mind a few days before Christmas. All I can figure is that I was thinking that as a little kid, or even as an adult, the best you can hope for or be thankful for at Christmas time is to have a safe and secure home and a family who loves you. Christmas gifts are nice too, but they’re optional.