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Christmas just isn't what it was when I was a mere lad
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Faith Hill recorded a song in 2000 that was used in Jim Carrey's version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

The lyrics go like this: "Where are you Christmas? Why can't a find you? Why have you gone away? Where is the laughter you used to bring me? Why can't I hear the music play? My world is changing, I'm rearranging, does that mean Christmas changes too? ... I'm not the same one, see what the time's done, is that why you have let me go?"

Faith, I hear you. Christmas just isn't what it was when I was a kid.

I used to get so excited about Christmas that I once literally got a stomach ache on Dec. 24. It wasn't just the anticipation of opening the presents -- it was also the anticipation of family coming over to fill the house with words, warmth, hugs, and okay, more gifts.

Today I am a little more cynical and much less enthused. In the words of Lucy on Charlie Brown, Christmas is "a big commercial racket ... it's run by a big eastern syndicate." Well, maybe not but it sure seems like commercialization has gutted the whole show and stripped it of all meaning in the name of making a buck. Have we forgotten it's about the birth of a Messiah and not an obese gift giver who wears red?

Thoughts of Christmas take me back to my days as a boy and to the people in my family who are gone. The memories of them are stronger than the memories of the gifts. Christmas invariably included a visit with my great-grandparents, my great aunt and uncle, cousins and others.

I confess that, for this column, I had to think hard to remember the actual gifts given to me over the years. Year after year we'd get our hands on a Sears Christmas catalogue and pore over the offering of items, circling the item we want for a gift and printing our name by each one. There would always be more wish items circled than received but my mom and dad gave us great Christmases every year. I should say my mom was the one who knocked herself out buying gifts; my dad was on the frugal side.

Perhaps because of the Kodak slides of those early Christmases I remember playing with a metal toy train that produced smoke as we'd wear our flannel PJ's. In 1965, toys were made of metal, not plastic. I wish I had kept that train in the box for it would be highly collectible today.

My Granddaddy would always buy us pop rifles. They only popped, mind you, unlike the Red Ryder B-B guns that could put your eye out, kid. For several years in a row he'd buy those rifles because we'd wear out the ones from the year before. In those days it was politically acceptable for little boys to tote around pretend carbines since we were interested in being good little cowboys, not twisted sick people who use weapons to kill kindergartners today.

Oh yeah, I remember for one Christmas in the late 1960s my brother Kevin and I got this kit where we could make rubber items like scorpions and other creatures by pouring this goop in a metal mold and heating it up. I can almost remember the smell it produced and I certainly remember the burnt smells produced by our wood burning kits. I liked gifts that allowed us to be creative.

I later got into GAF Viewmasters -- big time. I'd escape the confines of our house and go all over the world with me eyes peering into the device, seeing the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Other packets allowed me to visit Disneyland or Yosemite or Washington, D.C. And when GAF developed the talking Viewmaster, I made sure it was on my Christmas wish list. That was the Christmas I distinctly remember feeling my gifts through the wrapping to make sure it was a talking Viewmaster. When Mom wasn't around, I confess to having ripped the paper enough to find out which three-pack Viewmaster reels she bought me. Kids are such masters are squeezing, shaking and hearing gifts to find out what they are. No kid is ever surprised. They just know what you got them by a sort of Christmas osmosis. That's why one time my Mom wrapped up a bunch of garbage that included a jar of seeds, to stump us rascals. She'd laugh at our inability to discern that was inside. Once I accidentally - no, really -- walked out into the garage as my Dad and my mom's cousin Jackie were assembling my bike complete with banana seat. I was mortified to have spoiled the surprise.

When I was about 10 I got into performing magic tricks and I was given this magic kit with cool tricks that include a small top hat where I could make things disappear, including a two-inch-tall rubber bunny rabbit. The performer in me later wanted a ventriloquist doll. My plastic Danny O'Day doll could only move his mouth, not his eyes, so I tried my best to get him to speak without moving my lips. Around 1973 my brother got Lester, a black ventriloquist doll popularized by Willie Tyler.

That was the year I got the latest tape recorder. I was allowed to open them up early on Christmas eve so I could go around the Christmas gathering and interview relatives, sometimes inserting my smart aleck impersonation of President Nixon. On a visit to my grandmother's house in Delhi, my cousins wanted to speak into the mike, they thought it would be cute to say some dirty words they would later find would haunt them. With evidence on the cassette, I played it back for their dad, who ordered them into the bedroom for a quick administration of justice courtesy of the belt he pulled off his waist. Gosh that was a traitorous thing for a cousin to do. Come to think of it, that was probably the last time I had encounters with them.

One really cool gift I received one year was this multi-band portable radio where I could tune into weather stations, AM-FM, short wave radio and ham operators. It had a deep rich tone and was probably wider than I was.

I received numerous walkie-talkies in Christmases past. Of course, living in the isolated country of Stanislaus County didn't allow me to interact with many people but when the voice of a mysterious girl about my age came through the crackling signals, I develop my first heartache of puppy love. I still remember a pitter-patter in my heart at age 12 to be speaking with this young lady who was by my estimation less than three miles away. She said she was visiting from Indiana and I think her name was Cindy but I am wondering why I know that today. She sounded like a real cutie. I wanted to meet but ... nah, I was 12. Such are the first stirrings - stupid and irrational -- of a young boy who has just realized the opposite gender is something quite magical. I was heartbroken when my repeated calls for her went unanswered. She was gone.

Walkie-talkies never seemed to survive my use past three months. Those were the days when you had telescoping metal antennas. They later made them these stubby rubber things so you couldn't stab yourself or others with them.

My dad's mom always gave us small toys and an outfit of clothing. Shoot, kids could care less about clothes as gifts. I wish I had her today to tell her how much I loved her and appreciated the love in those gifts that I didn't really appreciate them.

As I grew up the pampering of the gifts grew less and less, as I was expected to be the giver, not so much the receiver. I remember the disappointing task in the late 1970s of cashing in my Kennedy half dollars to come up with Christmas money; the coin dealer offered me a fraction of what I was hoping to get. My gift giving didn't go far since I was a teen and didn't have a job.

Through the raising of four children, I enjoyed the magic of Christmas through their eyes and their excitement. Embedded in my mind is a photo of my youngest son, Jeremy, with his face filled with wonder as his eyes are lit up by the sights on Christmas Tree Lane in Ceres. Now in the Air Force, he is unable to come home this time.

In recent years the family tradition has included the notorious ceramic kitchen pig chef that holds wooden utensils. It is so ugly it easily became the butt of jokes and became the re-gifted item everyone dreaded to get. Such laughter has come from the ridiculous thing.

Today I am the grandfather buying gifts for my two grandsons. And I must say it feels impossible to be at this stage.

I've had a wonderful life. I have led a blessed life with plenty of love from plenty of ones who loved me past and present. I have been too familiar with plenty, so much so that I cannot relate to my grandmother telling me that the only way she knew it was Christmas as a child was the telltale scent of oranges that were their only gifts. And to think that today I am still awaiting frivolous gifts like that Christnas Story leg lamp.

Faith Hill concludes in her song "If there is love in your heart and your mind You will feel like Christmas all the time."

I prefer that view - living a life of giving and generosity year-round rather than engaging in the frenetic knock-yourself-out hustle and bustle of the season.

Merry Christmas!

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