Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Half the Fun of Christmas

A Christmas Gift to you from page 242 in my highly entertaining memoir, Just Seven Blocks from the Mexican Border

Half the Fun of Christmas
by Paul Nichols

We opened gifts on Christmas Eve because Mom spent Christmas morning preparing world class Christmas dinners. Only once do I remember opening on Christmas morning and that was because Dad worked the swing shift the night before.

We always bought our Christmas trees because there are no Christmas tree farms in the desert. We went down to a vacant lot on G Avenue and picked one out. While Dad was setting it up, Neal or Noel went out to the shed and dragged in a wide box of ornaments. Ruth and I added popcorn chains and colorful paper chains that we made at school. The tree wasn’t officially decorated until we put the angel on top. Noel was always the one who got to do that.

At school, all the students decorated the walls and windows with paper snowflakes and other typical childhood Christmas art. We always had two full weeks of Christmas vacation from school. At church, on the Sunday evening before Christmas, all the children sang in the Christmas pageant. All the little boys put on their father’s bath robes and called themselves shepherds and wise men. All the little girls wrapped themselves in old bed sheets and called themselves angels. Whoever had the biggest doll donated it so the cardboard box manger could have a Baby Jesus. Afterward, all the kids got a long net stocking with candy and an orange. There was always an orange at the bottom. The first year those stockings were distributed I was seven or eight years old. I was surprised to see them and politely said, “No, thank you” when one was offered to me. I declined because I wasn’t sure if Dad would pay for it. But when I saw the other kids—including Ruth—getting a free stocking full of candy I changed my mind.

Back home, we looked forward to parcel post packages. Traditionally, Aunt Crosie always sent a box of homemade divinity with walnuts and little bags of her glass candy. She always included a couple of towels that she had stencil-painted. Some years she included pink and green popcorn balls, which she also made. Grandmother sent a package of exciting things like colorful argyle socks.

Half the fun of Christmas is shaking a present to figure out what it is. The other half is counting how many presents you have under the tree—and your little sister better not have more than you!

Another half is laying on the floor close to the tree and watching the lights twinkle. We had strings of bubble lights that intrigued me to no end. On a cold December evening, I dreamt under those lights all night long.

Speaking of dreaming on the floor, half the fun of Christmas is flopping on the floor with the Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward winter catalogs and drooling over page after page of Christmas toys. Sometimes Ruth and I both lay there, propped up on our elbows, telling each other how much we wanted that and that and that and, well, everything on the page. She always loitered over the dolls and strollers, make-up kits and authentic ballerina costumes. I wanted to hurry on to the fire trucks and electric trains and toy soldiers. I dreamed for an electric train more than anything else.

The best half of Christmas is being sent into the back bedroom with Ruth to anxiously wait for Noel to ring the doorbell and holler, “Ho. Ho. Ho.”

“Well, who is this?” Mom feigned every Christmas Eve at seven o’clock. “Paul! And Ruth! Come quickly! Look who’s here!” No matter how fast we ran to the living room, there was never anyone there. Just Mom, Dad, Neal and Noel. We never looked for anyone, anyway. We headed straight for the tree. “Oh, you just missed him,” Noel always teased with a grin. Ruth and I were never taught about Santa Claus. We learned about him from pictures and rumors at school. (My brother Neal once confessed, “…when I still believed in Santa.”)

The Nichols were not well-to-do folks. The kids usually got a special toy or game for Christmas and several things we “needed”—shirts and belts and underwear and still more socks.

Dad always got a shirt and a tie and a new Crescent wrench. Mom always got towels and aprons. Dad was usually romantic enough to give her something modern with an electrical cord dangling from it. Her first electric toaster was a fantastic addition to our kitchen. That Christmas Eve we must have toasted two loaves of bread. Two slices of bread toasted evenly on both sides at the same time. “Oh, wow!”

One year, Ruth received a portable pink record player for her 45 rpm records. It closed up like a suitcase and she carried it anywhere she wanted. That made for easy gift giving for me. I gave her a rock ‘n’ roll record a couple of years. The ones on the Top Ten chart cost a dollar, the others only eighty-five cents. She didn’t get the ones in the Top Ten.

There were four Christmases when I got cheated out of a present. I was thirteen when my California cousin Ruth Ann sent me a bottle of Old Spice after shave lotion. Well, her parents did. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I wondered. “I’ll just give it to Dad, I guess.”

When I was fourteen the same thing happened. “Again?”

When I was fifteen the same thing…

When I was sixteen…

When your mom tells you to send a thank you note, don’t blather on about your gift. You might get another one just like it. I have no idea what my folks picked out for Ruth Ann on my behalf, but I’ll bet it wasn’t four consecutive bottles of something she’d never use.

One year just before Christmas, I happened upon a dirty pop bottle that was almost fully buried in a vacant lot. Hmmm. I wrapped the dirty bottle in some meat wrapping paper that Mom was about to toss out. With a green crayon I wrote, “To Noel from Paul.” Ha. Ha.

“Hey, Thanks, Paul,” he said. “I can get the nickel deposit for this!” Later on Mom scolded me.

One bittersweet Christmas, I was ripping and tearing through an unusually large number of gifts when I noticed Neal sitting on the couch just watching everyone. He was home from college and had already opened his gift. A belt, I think. Just one present? That’s not fair. I looked around to see if I had something to give him. Nothing, really. I went back to my presents, but I lost my enthusiasm.

Now I must tell you that there is no such thing as a White Christmas. That’s as much of a myth as Santa Claus. Oh, no. In Douglas, Christmas is a bright, sunny day, the temperature about 65 degrees, and all the kids go outside in light jackets. Santa will melt in that red, hot suit he wears.

Half the fun of Christmas is drifting outside into the warm sunshine to find out what your friends got. Here and there was a new bike and a couple of footballs, and naturally, new dolls. Everybody got some kind of clothes, but we didn’t waste our time telling about those things. We wanted to know about the good stuff like cap pistols with holsters, Red Ryder BB guns and chemistry sets. By nine o’clock, all the kids in the neighborhood knew what each other had received.

Except for the big dinner, Christmas was pretty much over.

Other than Lavonda and her girls when they lived next door, I don’t think we had any relatives in our home during the Christmas season. We might have, though, because we had some Christmas dinners that included more people than the Nichols. Mom fixed the whole thing herself. Just before we ate, Dad read from Luke, Chapter 2, the pretty story of Jesus’ birth.

The Nichols were not well-to-do folks. When I was a junior in high school, my parents gave me a gift that came in a small, square box. Not the kind where I’d find another pair of socks. Besides, I’d already opened that box. I always opened the socks first, saving the best for last.

“Hmmm? This is different. Wonder what it is?”

I was sitting on the floor. Just my luck: the box was difficult to unwrap and just as difficult to open. I picked at the stubborn tape and frantically riffled through my imagination. “What on earth?”

I finally broke open the box. I looked in, but still couldn’t figure out what it was. It was bright and shiny and upside-down. I never had a bright, shiny, upside-down gift before.

“A watch!” My eyes saw it, but my brain didn’t. “No! It can’t be!”

“We can’t… They don’t… Where did…? How could they afford this?” I never had a watch before. With uncontained disbelief I broke into shaking and sobbing—right in front of my sister.

“Well, Paul, what’s wrong, honey?” Mom asked with a proud smile. I just shook my head and kept on sobbing. I never dreamt that my parents would sacrifice so much money on me. It took me a week to take that nine dollar Timex watch out of the box, wind it up and wear it.

Half the fun of Christmas was discovering that the Nichols were more well-to-do than I thought.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"—1 Corinthians 2:9

I am quite fond of all my blogging friends. My First Wife and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and too many blessings to count. 


kenju said...

Paul, this post ought to be submitted to a newspaper! It's wonderful.

I smiled at the part about not having more presents under the tree than your siblings. One year I had to explain to a grandson why he only had one and his twin brother and sister had 3 or 4 each. He couldn't fathom that his present cost a large amount of money compared to those of his siblings; he wanted 3 more presents too!

Merry Christmas to you, your first wife and the rest of your family!

Star said...

A wonderful excerpt Paul. Merry Christmas.

Monique said...

A very Merry Christmas to you and Your First Wife, Paul!!

Cliff said...

I must get off of my duff and order a book. This was as great as I thought it would be. Well written and neat memories. Email me the details (amt,address, etc to get a genuine autographed copy of your book.)
And fyi, we are at the beginning of three days of high winds and 12 to 16" of snow. I agreed to closing the courthouse this morning and I'm guessing all Christmas Eve services will be called off tonight. The next call will be from our Pastor to discuss that I'm sure.
Our family from Lincoln probably wont make it tonight. I'm worried that I might not be able to eat 5# of shrimp by myself.
Merry Christmas to you and G. And btw, we already do have more blessings than we can count.

Rachel said...

That was a truly lovely post Paul. I had to smile at all your wonderful memories of Christmas when you were a child. Aren't our memories of those times just so precious to us!

I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas!!

psychomom said...

Beautifully written...took me back to my childhood. Thank you.