December 18, 2009

Christmas memories

Innocence of childhood is at the heart of Christmases’ past

By Ann Wathen (Special to The Criterion)

I am over 70 years old, and can only remember two Christmases in detail—one when I was about 8 years old and the other when my son was 6 years old.

I can’t remember ever thinking much about Santa Claus. We saw Santas on street corners ringing bells, and Mother told us they were Santa’s helpers. Otherwise, we did not bring up the subject.

I doubt if we ever stood in line and told Santa what we wanted for Christmas. I never knew what I wanted.

During World War II, and for a few years thereafter, there wasn’t much that we could want that could be got. We never had much money anyway so wanting would not have done us any good.

The year that Dad was between jobs, we had a small Christmas tree. It was put on the piano so it would look bigger.

We were in the bathtub when we heard our parents call out, “Goodbye, Santa! Thanks for stopping!”

My sister, Rosemary, and I jumped out of the tub, wrapped ourselves in towels and rushed to the living room to see packages under the tree.

We were told, “Go put on your pajamas, and come back and see what Santa brought.”

Under the tree were two doll suitcases, a dollhouse complete with furniture and packages with clothing. On the sofa were two dolls dressed in satin gowns. I quickly went to our room to get our old dolls so I could introduce them to the new dolls, but they were not there.

“What happened to Martha and Sally?” I asked my Mother.

“Oh, Santa took those dolls to give to the poor kids,” she told us.

And that was the truth, only we didn’t know that we were the poor kids.

Mother had taken the old dolls to the doll hospital for new wigs, and had sat up late at night at her sewing machine making clothing for them.

Dad had begged shirt boxes from the haberdashery, covered them with oil cloth, added hinges and a lock, and—presto!—they became doll suitcases.

The dollhouse was a wonder. It was huge. In the four rooms, made from cardboard boxes scrounged from the grocery store, were wallpaper (leftovers from friends’ houses), curtains cut from scraps of our old clothing, rugs (felt cut from an old hat), and upholstered furniture made of clothespins, cotton from medicine bottles for stuffing and material.

We loved that dollhouse and played with it constantly. Mother relegated it to the basement, but we went down there every day after school and played dolls with our dollhouse until supper time.

The dollhouse and suitcases disappeared soon after Dad got a job. It took many years and being a mother during hard times myself to realize that Mother was ashamed of those gifts.

If she only knew how much they meant to us. The “bought” gifts were never as much fun. In fact, I don’t remember what I got as gifts on any other Christmas.

Then, when my son was 6, his father was between jobs. I was upset that I could not buy Joe very many gifts. I went to the dime store and got tiny cars, hand-held games and socks. I wrapped everything separately.

My parents had sent clothing, but I knew just how much pleasure the toys would bring to an active boy. I managed to get a dozen small things wrapped up for Joe.

On Christmas morning, Joe tore through the wrapping paper with exclamations of happiness. He played with each toy for a few minutes before going on to the next present.

After opening his gifts, Joe asked, “Can I go over to Gary’s house? I want to see what he got for Christmas.”

I allowed him to visit his friend, but with fear in my heart. I hoped that Joe wouldn’t come home disappointed with his own presents. Was I ever surprised!

“Guess what?” Joe said later. “Gary only got four presents and one was just a stamp!”

The stamp was worth $800, but my 6-year-old son didn’t know its value. But even if he had known, Joe would not have cared.

When I hear the ads on TV and see the greed in children’s eyes as they walk through shopping malls, making demands of their parents for their Christmas wishes, I am appalled by their behavior.

What happened to the innocence of childhood, where anticipation was most of the fun and it didn’t matter how much you got for Christmas? The importance was that Santa had come, and there were packages under the Christmas tree waiting to be opened.

(Ann Wathen is a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.)

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