In conjuring up my earliest Christmas memories, I’m taken back to when there was just mom, dad, and me. We were living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I was still eager to point out that my birth had transformed my parents from being “just” a couple to being a family.
Here’s what I remember: When I was a child, Christmas was simple. My parents bought a fake tree from Woolworths. Every year we’d take it out of it’s ever-softening cardboard box, bend the branches back down and away from the twisted metal trunk, and attach it to its plastic stand. It stood three feet tall, so with each Christmas that passed I could use it to assess my growth. Once we’d gotten it looking like a tree again, we’d decorate it with tinsel boas.
I don’t remember many ornaments on our Christmas tree other than the pinecones my mother and I had gone to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to collect, brought home, spray-painted silver or gold, and then dusted with glitter. However, I do remember the plastic, tinsel-adorned star for the tree’s top that lit up.
Gifts were not the primary part of our Christmas Day. Christmas itself was the gift. It was a universal holiday, a day when we could all stop—a rarity given school schedules, ballet lessons, and my father’s multiple jobs, which led to long work hours and few days off.
I don’t remember waking up extra early and waiting expectantly by the tree. As someone with an hour’s commute to school each day (and then another hour to and from ballet), I didn’t need to get up early for gifts. I savored sleeping in a bit. And knowing how hard my parents worked, I would never have dared wake them up.
I remember Christmas Day being the gift. It gave us a chance to all be home together. It gave us a day to sit at the dining room table for a meal as a family rather than helping ourselves from a warm pot on the stove whenever we got home, and (more often than not) eating alone.
That is not to say that there were no traditional gifts during my childhood Christmases. They simply weren’t the focus. Neither was Santa Claus. Seeing one at every store quickly awakened my skepticism. I always knew where my gifts were really coming from. And since I also knew that we weren’t rich, I tried not to ask for more than I thought my parents could give.
When it came to Christmas, my family focused on Christ more than feeding commercialism. My mother’s faith was big enough to cover us all, plus there wasn’t much extra money to go around. My father was a law student, and I was in an expensive private school. Even with generous scholarships, money was precious. We had everything we needed, but there wasn’t a lot of extra room for frivolous wants.
When I was very young, most of my Christmas gifts came from relatives (aunts, uncles, and god-parents). I remember that they earned one of two classifications—those I anticipated and those I unwrapped with low expectations.
The good gift givers were those who kept it light and focused on things I liked—namely ballet and Barbies. The bad gift givers were either too principled, practical, imperceptive, or inconsiderate to try and please me. They’re the ones who only gave me clothes, and not swirly dresses or skirts that I’d have loved. They gave me itchy sweaters, underwear, and pajamas—never toys or books or anything I’d have been happy to use.
The other bad gift givers were the ones who didn’t consider my status as an only child and gave me board games (or anything that required at least two people for its enjoyment). This stung because I wasn’t just an only child; I was an isolated only child who was effectively friendless on nights and weekends, because all my classmates lived on the other side of the East River in Manhattan.
By the time my ballet and Barbie days were well behind me, I got almost the same thing every year—money from my mother and earrings from my father. The earrings got worn; the money rarely got spent. I was a staunch saver, so much so that when money was tight, I could usually give what I’d been given back.
When my brother and sister were born (Irish twins at 363 days apart), my parents bought them showstopper gifts (many of which I’d once wanted but was now too old to play with). They got the Fisher Price kitchen one Christmas, Gameboys another, and then a television with a built-in VCR. I understood that my parents could spend more buying one gift for two and that our financial footing by that time was different. But I’d be lying if I said I felt absolutely no wistful feelings of resentment.
Now, as an adult, my Christmas looks very different. It’s not a day of staying in, but of going out. And I’m sure my husband and I spend a much larger amount. And while I enjoy the time with my extended family eating, laughing, giving gifts, and playing games, I also miss when Christmas was simpler and more contained. I appreciate being able to give more, and I am grateful for all that I get. But Christmas when I was a child was special—modest, but blessed. It was solely about love, our faith, and togetherness.