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Christmas is best appreciated with a childlike heart

I think just about everyone becomes a kid again when Christmas rolls around.

It’s kind of the same feeling as when entering the gates of Disneyland; it just automatically brings out the kids’ heart in a person.

My enthusiasm for the holiday has changed over the years, of course. As a kid I used to get so excited about Christmas that I would get a stomach ache come Christmas Eve because that was the night to open gifts and when family would fill the house with warmth, words, delicious food, hugs, and more gifts.

I suppose I am not as cynical as Lucy on the Charlie Brown Christmas show when she insists that Christmas is a “big commercial racket ... run by a big eastern syndicate.” For sure, it seems the commercialization has gutted the entire intent of the holiday and stripped it of all meaning in the name of the dollar.

It seems like an insidious plot to make Santa Claus the primary personality of the season when the birth of the Messiah has been shoved in the closet.

Indeed, it seems the world has given perverse meaning to all the holidays, including Easter where a resurrected Savior is replace by a bunny and colored eggs. School music presentations used to allow kids to sing “Away in a Manger” with lyrics like “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray to bless all the dear children in Thy tender care and take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.” Can’t have any of that nonsense sung in schools now – it might offend someone. I suppose nobody cares how the Christian is expected to quietly be tolerant as their traditions are dismantled and replaced with multi-cultural swill.

I remember a day when it was widely accepted to observe the religious component of the season when in the 1960s I played the part of a wise man as I stood in a live nativity scene in the yard of a Modesto church.

But still, one must shrug off the façade of adulthood we tend to wear with the ever-present mask of professionalism and responsibility and just try to enjoy the season as a child would. Maybe to don the deranged Easter bunny suit PJs that Ralphie had to try on in the movie Christmas Story. 

It’s amazing how hearing Nat King Cole sing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” or Gene Autry singing “Here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane,” or Burl Ives singing, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas, it’s the best time of the year…” how strong the memory of childhood Christmas returns. It’s immediately followed by the sadness of recounting every face in the family no longer around. This year will be especially sad knowing it’ll be the first time in my 59 years without my mom.

The memories of them are stronger than the memories of the gifts. 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 us boys would get our hands on a Sears’, Ward’s or J.C. Penney’s Christmas catalogue and pore over the items, circling the toys we wanted and writing our name by the circle. There would always be more wish items circled than received but my mom and dad gave us great Christmases each year.

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 holes in the knees of our flannel PJ’s. I wish I had kept that train in the box for it would be highly collectible today. In 1965, toys were made of metal, not plastic. When my grandmother asked what became of them, I shrugged, wondering what Bay Area landfill they are rusting away in.

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 them because we’d wear out the ones from the prior year. Keep in mind that those were the days when it was politically acceptable for little boys to tote around pretend carbines – before the law mandating those sissy orange caps on the end of the barrel – since we were good little cowboys, not twisted kids who use real weapons to kill classmates today.

I relished in the gifts that allowed us to be creative. In the late 1960s my brother Kevin and I received a Creepy Crawlers kit where we could make rubbery items like scorpions and other creatures by pouring this “Plastigoop” into a hot metal plate that could heat up to 300 degrees. You could count on lawsuits if they ever tried to bring that one back. I can almost remember the odor it produced and I certainly remember the burnt aroma produced by our wood-burning kits. They’ve gone the way of lawn darts, too.

What kid didn’t receive a slew of Slinkies, Etch-A-Sketches, Lincoln Logs and Lite Brites?

When I was about 10 I was into performing magic tricks and I was given this magic kit with cool tricks that include a small top hat where I could make a two-inch-tall rubber bunny rabbit disappear. The performer in me later wanted a ventriloquist doll. My rubber-faced Danny O’Day could only move his mouth, not his eyes, and 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. I still have him, his head has been severed and needs to be sewed on.

I later got into GAF View Masters – big time. I’d escape the confines of our house and go all over the world with my eyes peering into the device. I could see the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Yosemite or Washington, D.C. And when GAF developed the talking View Master, 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 in view, I’d “accidentally” rip the wrapping paper enough to find out which three-pack View Master reels she bought.

Kids are such masters are squeezing, shaking and hearing gifts to find out what they are. No kid is ever surprised on Christmas Day. They just know what you got them by a sort of Christmas osmosis. That’s why one time Mom wrapped up a bunch of junk items that included a jar of seeds and pencils and whatever, to stump us rascals. She laughed at our inability to discern what was inside.

Once I accidentally – yes, 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.

Over the years I had a host of tape recorders given to me. One Christmas Eve I was allowed to open one gift early so I could use it at the gathering. I interviewed relatives, sometimes interjecting 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 and they thought it would be cute to say some dirty words. I don’t know what possessed me to rat them out but I hinted to their dad that they said some bad words on tape so he asked me to play it back for his inquisitive ears. Uncle Leonard promptly ordered them into the bedroom for a quick administration of justice courtesy of the belt he pulled from his waistband. I felt guilty as I heard the thwacks against their backsides through the door. Such a traitorous thing for a cousin to do. Come to think of it, I don’t think I had much to do with them after that.

One really cool gift 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 countless walkie-talkies in Christmases past. Walkie-talkies never seemed to survive past three months. Those were the days when you had telescoping metal antennas that, if collapsed and broke, had the potential to puncture the palm of the hand. They later made them these stubby rubber things so you couldn’t stab yourself or others with them. Of course, they don’t have the range the metal ones did.

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 over the crackling signal, 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, within a three-mile radius. 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 walkie-talkie calls for her went unanswered. Cindy was gone.

My dad’s mom always gave us small toys and an outfit of clothing. 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 at the time.

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 around 1978 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. Now there are grandchildren to relive Christmas through.

I think for me the excitement of the gifts has been replaced by the nostalgia of the Christmas music and all of those old wonderful holiday movies of American culture. We have the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the Claymation Rudolph, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in “White Christmas,” a goofball view of holidays with Chevy Chase, and a disgruntled George Bailey who is disillusioned with life but allowed to see what his life actually means in the grand scheme of things. And let’s not forget triple dog daring, the major award leg lamp and a remote but caring father who, in the heat of battle of fixing the broken-down family furnace, could weave a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

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 in Oklahoma in the 1920s was the telltale scent of oranges. They were a luxury and their only gifts.

Keep your wits about you this holiday season. Don’t miss the point. Relax, wrap your hands around some warm cider or coffee or tea and breathe in the season. But make sure you let your inner kid loose to slide around on the floor littered with ripped-open wrapping paper and enjoy the gifts, whatever they may be.

This column is the opinion of Jeff Benziger, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation. How do you feel about this? Let Jeff know at