When I was a small girl we had an old-fashioned downtown area that measured about three square blocks in which traffic was controlled by one red light and several stop signs. Within this retail district was at least one of everything – a newspaper agent, a wallpaper store, a hardware store, two banks, two groceries stores, a luncheonette, ladies and children’s wear, a haberdashery, insurance, and last but not least a five and dime store.
At Christmas time the five and dime store, whose real name was I think Ben Frankin’s, was a favorite destination for me for that was where I bought most of my Christmas presents for the family. As an only child I had no brothers and sisters to buy for but I did have numerous aunts and uncles and cousins. Each year I would buy the uncles white pocket handkerchiefs and the aunts lacy ones with embroidery.
I don’t know that those lacy ones are around anymore except perhaps in an antique shop. These kinds of hankies were not really used to blow one’s nose except in emergencies. They were put in Sunday purses that were carried to church and accompanied by a small plastic comb, a change purse, lipstick if you were old enough or chap stick if you weren’t, the donation envelop for the collection and rosary beads.
Purchasing my Christmas hankies was an important time of decision for me. Each one had to have different embroidery designs and in a rainbow of colors so no aunt would be carrying an identical hanky. When it came to wrapping and assigning a particular one to a specific aunt I often struggled with impartiality, for, of course, there were a couple of the aunts for whom I had a special affinity and it was important that no hint of this bias be apparent by the assigning of a particularly lovely design.
This early exercise in fairness stood me in good stead years later when buying Christmas presents for my two sons. Each had to get an equal number of presents, and, hopefully, the money spent on each son was the same. This is a balancing act all parents need to master for children have a built-in radar for equality.
But I digress, although this particular post is a more rambling one than usual and digression is part of the woof and warp. This all started out this morning as I lay in bed while my mind traveled back to Christmas mornings forty, fifty, sixty years ago.
There would be an immaculate sheet of white snow on the ground that last night sparkled with starlight. The sky would be an intense blue setting off the dark green of the pines. The smell of the coal-fed fire wafting up through floor registers from the dark brooding furnace in the cellar would mix with the scent of cloves that studded the ham baking in the oven.
As a child nothing was more thrilling than to bound out of bed on Christmas morning and run down stairs to see what had been left overnight under the tree. Christmas morning was one of those magical times of the year when some, if not all, wishes could come true. In later years, as a parent, Christmas morning was the time when happiness came from being able to give presents and to make, if only for a little while, someone else happy.
After childhood, after parenthood, the excitement of the holidays seems to diminish. There is no one’s special gift I yearn to receive and there is no one’s special gift I can give. Years ago, days and days would be spent in Christmas shopping and cookie baking and tree trimming and turkey basting – but no more.
The Christmas traditions have been passed on to a younger generation to fulfill. Many things are too difficult to do and as an oldster and a grandparent there is less and less that is required, expected or needed. Without the attendant preparation and anticipation Christmas no longer has that heightened excitement for me – and in some ways I miss it.
So the Christmas season takes on a different coloration and rhythm. Time is spent writing Christmas cards and signing checks; trees are ready-made and packable; cookies are no longer permitted and 16-pound turkeys have been replaced by a ready-to-eat turkey breast with gravy included.
My preparations now consist of considerations of the passage of another year and the darkening of the shorter days. While waiting for the return of the light I count the blessings I have been given as my gifts and wonder how I could have given more and to whom. The presents I give and receive are not wrapped in colored paper and opened only on one special day but are scattered indiscriminately throughout the year.
When I open these invisible boxes I find the generosity of children, the smiles of friends, the assistance of strangers, the song of birds, blue skies and peaceful nights with purring cats. The gifts I give now are not bought in the five and dime nor sporting a gay embroidery but come disguised as poems and stories and pictures, as times shared and prayers spoken.
These gifts I have received and given are precious and one-of-a-kind. They are not put in one’s pocket but placed in one’s heart ready to be pulled out a moment’s notice.