I have reached an age where there is not much that I need or want. It makes me a difficult father and grandfather at gift giving time. I can just hear my kids saying, “What are we going to get for Dad?” and, in despair, buying something they’ve noticed is missing or worn out in the house.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. There was childhood in which gifts from family and friends, gifts from Santa Claus, were eagerly anticipated. One’s heart’s desire in childhood is often quite simple, quite obvious; we’re not usually subtle in childhood. We’re inclined to say things like, “Boy, would it ever be nice to have a bike. Joe has a bike. A red CCM. You should see it.”
I expect that’s the kind of thing I said that meant my grandparents put a red CCM, kid size, under the tree.
I was lucky. I always got one or more Christmas gifts. Christmas Eve is a big event for people of Icelandic extraction. That’s when we opened the gifts that had accumulated under the tree. From my folks, the gifts were inclined to be practical, to be things that I needed, like new pants, shirts, socks. That, too, was a remnant of an Icelandic tradition but, in Iceland, during the time of emigration, conditions were hard and each person usually got one new piece of clothing. We weren’t well-to-do but we were better off than that.
I always got at least one book. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Black Arrow, Robin Hood, The Hardy Boys. Over the years, my library grew. I read my books over and over again, borrowed more where I could, bought some when I managed to make enough money from baby sitting or cutting lawns or shovelling snow. However, there was something special about knowing, from having felt the wrapped gift, that there would be a new book to read on Christmas day.
Christmas morning it was hard to stay in bed. My brother and I didn’t get up until we heard that our parents were awake. Then we crept into the living room to look under the tree to see what Santa had brought.
I don’t ever remember doubting Santa Claus’s existence. The existential questions didn’t plague me. How could he cover the whole world in one night even with his magical reindeer? How could he get in and out of houses when they didn’t have fireplaces? Ours didn’t. He came down the chimney, he’d have dropped straight into our wood burning furnace. No, for me, everything was possible. And no one was so mean as to say Santa Claus didn’t exist. No one forced adult disillusionment and cynicism on a couple of little kids.
Santa may have been secular and materialistic but we never saw any conflict between him and Christ. They were two good guys. Santa was jolly. Christ was serious but we didn’t really think much, if anything, about the grown up Christ. Our Christ was the baby Jesus in the manager and while Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was on our lips so was Silent Night. Santa might bring that desperately wanted football but that did not diminish the joy in the brown paper bag with hard candy and an orange handed out at the church.
We didn’t really have Icelandic traditions because my mother was Irish and it’s Mom’s who take care of these things while Dad’s are off doing whatever it is that Dad’s do to pay for gifts and turkey and potatoes and gravy. And cranberry sauce. However, we were very fortunate in having an Icelandic Icelandic family, the Bjarnason’s just two houses south. After we went to the late night service at the Lutheran church, we then went to the Bjarnason’s where Gusta fed us sukla and cookies and cakes and everything nice. We ate so much sugar and spice that it was amazing that we didn’t turn into girls. There wasn’t a single snip or snail to be seen. Moreover, none of us boys complained. None of us said that’s too much sugar and spice. I’ll skip the next piece of vinarterta.
There were, I know, gifts under the Christmas tree brought by Santa. However, only a few of them stand out. The desperately desired bike my grandparents gave me. The football that got used in pickup games for many years. Probably, though, no gift could match the Cooey .22. I was twelve. Nowadays, with all the fuss about guns because our larger, more urbanized population uses guns to do harm, giving a twelve year old a rifle may seem preposterous.
However, my father started teaching me to shoot a .22 when I was two. He held the rifle and I aimed and pulled the trigger. He took me hunting with him around the same time, hauling me behind him on a sleigh. We ate what he hunted. Our favorite meal, Sunday after Sunday, was rabbit pie. We ate venison, goose and ducks. We even ate beaver tail and prairie chicken.
I hunted rabbits with my .22. When I brought them home, I was proud of my accomplishment. Rabbit for the stew pot. When I shot a prairie chicken and brought it home, I was proud of providing a prairie chicken for the stew pot.
Maybe it is prosperity, the ability to buy whatever you want for yourself. Maybe it has something to do with extravagant competition, bigger and bigger and more expensive gifts. Maybe it has to do with the artificial manipulation of desire on TV, the turning of Santa Claus from a jolly old elf who likes his Coca Cola into a pitchman so crazed that no happiness can exist for a child unless he or she is buried in toys.
What is left, for me, thank goodness, is the joy of giving. However, even this is tempered with the knowledge of a Canada that I don’t remember. I know that some people in Gimli did not have much and there may not have been anything or very little under the Christmas tree. There may have been no Christmas tree. The bag of candy and the orange at the church may have been the only gift. However, as a child our world is small, it encompasses family and, perhaps, friends. We are not part of discussions about how much can be spent on Christmas gifts or Christmas food or how poor other people might be.
However, as I grew up, I don’t remember soup kitchens, food banks, people living in cars, homeless people pushing grocery carts with their few possessions.
Maybe, because we weren’t constantly being told that we should want things, we were satisfied with less. One of the finest gifts my brother and I ever received came from a friend who came to live with us for a while. He wasn’t much older than us. It was a kind of pinball game you played with it resting on the floor or a table and there was a slot and spring with which you could send metal balls shooting up. There were numbered metal pieces that were curved and each one had a value marked below it. We tried to get the balls into the various curved metal pieces. We played with it for years.
Adults know that we created Santa Claus. We know that Coca Cola helped to develop his current image. As a child it did me no harm to believe in a jolly old elf who was generous and kind and brought kids gifts. The larger questions, the unanswerable questions of right and wrong, of materialism vs. idealism can wait until later. Kids need jolly old elves in their lives. More than ever. Their adult worries will start soon enough.
Perhaps, though, for me, the most important part of Christmas was Christmas Eve with its ritual of attending a late service. Ritual matters. These many decades later, I remember no more of the gifts than those I’ve mentioned and, of those I have mentioned, there was none more important than the small paper bag with hard candy and an orange that was given to children at the service. Never have I forgotten holding my paper bag as we sang Silent Night. In childhood, that bag contained the sweetness of both the candy and the exotic flavour of the orange. Today, as I think back, what matters is that I know that those kids who weren’t lucky enough to have gifts on Christmas morning, had that bag with those candies and that orange and, I’ve been told, were sometimes given more than one. I hope that is true.