This will be my 56th Christmas.
I used to get so excited about Christmas that I once literally got a stomachache on Dec. 24. It wasn't just the anticipation of opening the presents. It was also about the anticipation of family members coming over to fill the house with conversation, warmth, hugs, and sure, more gifts.
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.
Things have changed and now kids today usually don't get the privilege of pouring over the Sears or J.C. Penney catalogues in search of the perfect gift. I remember circling a lot of items, hoping to get a fraction of what I hoped to get.
I guess you can say I wanted geaky gifts. I think one year I got a chemistry set and also a microscope. I don't know why because I have little interest in science today.
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.
Granddaddy - he was my mother's father - would always buy us pop rifles. They only popped, mind you, unlike the Red Ryder B-B guns that could put an eye out. 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.
I remember for one Christmas in the 1960s my brother Kevin and I got this Creepy Crawlers kit where we could make rubber items like scorpions, insects and other creatures by pouring this goop in a metal mold and heating it up. I 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 View-Masters - big time. I could escape the confines of our house and go all around the world with my eyes peering into the device - aimed always at a light source - 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 View-Master, I made sure it was on my Christmas wish list. That same Christmas I distinctly remember pressing the wrapping paper against the gifts hoping to make out the words on the product packaging to make sure it was a talking View-Master. Feeling gifts was also a way to verify what was inside. When Mom wasn't around, I confess to having ripped the wrapping paper enough to find out which three-pack View-Master reels she bought me. (Kids are such masters are squeezing, shaking and hearing gifts to find out what they are and because of that behavior no kid is ever surprised.) They just know what you got them by a sort of Christmas osmosis - which is 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.
I felt bad one Christmas when I had trouble sleeping and awoke to search out my parents - only to find my Dad in the garage with my visiting mom's cousin, Jackie, who were assembling my bike complete with banana seat.
When I was about 10 I got into performing magic tricks and I was given this magic kit with cool tricks. One of the items was this small hard plastic top hat where I could make a two-inch-tall rubber bunny rabbit disappear - because of a hook that would enable it to be caught inside of it. I later abandoned magic when my Christian grandmother suggested that magic was the "work of the Devil." I was just having fun tricking people but her overreaching conclusion just ruined it for me. 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. I don't know what happened to Danny but Lester is in my garage with a few disembodied limbs that need to be sewed back on.
That was the year I got the latest tape recorder. I was allowed to open up the gift early on Christmas Eve so I could go around the Christmas gathering and interview relatives, sometimes inserting my smart-alecky 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 that would come back to bite them. I happened to casually mention to their dad that they were being naughty and he asked to hear it. With feigned reluctance, I pushed play, his ears peeled back with horror and he summarily marched them into the bedroom for some quick 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 told me her name was Cindy and that she was visiting relatives from Indiana. 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 beyond two months' worth of use. Those were the days when they came with telescoping metal antennas which would bend and collapse if you didn't push them in with the finesse of a surgeon. If you retracted it wrong it would bend and break and then you could stab yourself with it. That's no doubt why they made them these stubby rubber things that didn't quite have the range as the other ones.
My paternal grandmother - who lived on El Capitan Way in Delhi - gave us small toys and an outfit of clothing. I'm ashamed to say that us boys could care less about clothing as gifts. She died in 2002 and 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 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 it's payback time. Today I am the grandfather buying gifts for my five grandsons and a granddaughter. My children, now adults, of course, ask me what I want for Christmas and I tell them "world peace." Indeed, I've reached the stage where there's not a lot I want. Well, maybe for the exception of that Christmas Story leg lamp.
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 stories told by my own late grandmother who grew up in an impoverished home and only the uncommon scent of oranges was the hint that a Christmas gift was coming. Oranges was the gift. And today I look at the extravagance of gift giving and I shake my head. The Christmas message - one of salvation through a selfless Savior, God who became man - has been tainted by a frenetic commercial trade.
There's nothing wrong with gift giving. But more and more I fear the world has strayed from what Christmas really means. May we all revisit its organic origins - a heavenly baby's cry in a dank manger with the smell of dung hanging in the air symbolizing humanity's deplorable condition, and the promise of a coming world that the mind cannot imagine.
Do you have any feedback about this column? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will read it, promise.