We’ve had a white Christmas. In fact, it’s been white outside our windows for two weeks now, and today’s predicted rain is pelting down in more snowflakes. We haven’t had a Christmas like this since I was a child growing up in the Robe Valley of Northwest Washington.
The icy highways, the snow-blocked driveways and side roads, aren’t all that remind me of those long-ago Christmases. TV this morning told of an unprecedented decline in expected retail sales. Our culture has trained people to think that “shopping ‘til they drop” is normal and necessary. But with thousands losing their jobs and people afraid to spend what they have, for many of us this has been a scaled-down Christmas. Despite the dismayed store owners out there, a new generation is learning that joy is not something that must be purchased.
Some are finding, as my family did the year of our “Best Christmas,” that giving of oneself is the finest way to give and get joy.
That year, about 1948, the loggers had been out of work for months because of a long strike. Then winter hit hard with deep snows that kept them out of the woods. Daddy’s unemployment compensation barely stretched to cover groceries for the family. At night after the five of us had gone to bed, we lay upstairs listening, tense and frightened, as Daddy worried loudly to Mama about how we were going to make it through the winter. One night, I heard our stalwart father break down in tears. That scared me more than any of his worrying. “We can’t buy anything for the kids this Christmas,” he wept. Mama murmured something comforting. Their voices went on for a long time, too low to understand, and I lay there, thinking about what I’d heard.
At twelve, I was learning to sew. I would make doll dresses for my sisters. I could embroider something pretty for Mama. I could make candy for Daddy and I’d think of something for the boys. We could have Christmas without money.
That year, as usual, we went out in the woods and cut our own Christmas tree. We decorated it with the familiar glass balls and candles in their metal clip holders and put the cardboard angel on top. We children wrapped our homemade gifts and put them under the tree. We’d tried hard to keep our secrets, and on Christmas Eve anticipation kept us awake, whispering and giggling.
Finally morning dawned, cold and snowy. We hurried into our clothes and dashed downstairs where lamplight warmed the kitchen and the scent of brewing coffee announced breakfast. But the sight of the Christmas tree stopped us short. A beautiful doll, almost as tall as sister Patty, stood beside it. She had yarn pigtails and wore little girl shoes and socks and a pretty pinafore dress. Her arms and legs moved, so Patty could make her walk. Mama had sewed her from muslin, stuffed her parts, then painted them with a flesh-colored mixture of leftover house paint. The doll had big brown eyes and a painted smile and rosy cheeks. Patty squealed with joy and hugged her.
Under the tree, Billy found a red tractor made of wood, with wooden wheels that really rolled. Daddy had made David a sled with wooden runners and painted it red, too. For Lois and me, the oldest children, he and Mama had made sewing “birds” from plywood. They looked like pelicans, with pincushion wings and a pair of scissors that slipped through a slot in the head to make the big bill. Each sat on a plywood base behind a revolving circle studded with nails which held colorful spools of thread. A folded measuring tape tucked beneath each bird’s body. Lois and I felt grown-up to possess our own sewing supplies in such a cute and portable “kit.”
In addition to all this, Daddy had steamed and shaped the ends of some long pieces of lumber to make skis. He’d sanded them smooth, varnished them, and attached leather straps to hold them to our feet. They didn’t work very well in our usually soft, wet snow, but that was okay. We had fun slogging through our clearing and down the little hills out front. Even at our young age, we recognized the time and care and love that had gone into making our perfectly chosen gifts.
Although we couldn’t wait to play with our new gifts and were eager to get outside to try out the skis and David’s sled, first we had the fun of opening the rest of our homemade gifts. Our parents beamed with pride and so did we kids, for our simple Christmas turned out to be our most memorable one ever.