In my family, Dad, his mother, and I all have December birthdays, so that, along with Christmas, has always meant extra everything, including food, big meals (cake!) and presents. Mom always wanted Dad to be truly celebrated on his day because she felt he had been short-changed as a kid in having been told that his holiday gift was also his birthday present. I think that also gave her the quality of making sure my birthday was a real birthday with separate gifts.
Gifts were special to me and I never could understand people who said it didn’t matter. Gram and Aunt Mattie exchanged money every year so they could spend it on themselves and I thought that was lame. Sometimes they would add to each other’s collections (Gram – pink lustreware, Aunt Mattie, match safes), but it still seemed underplayed by my standards. Grammy told me how her father would go down street the day of Christmas Eve and do all of his Christmas shopping right then. I know that a blue glass syrup pitcher I have was one of his holiday purchases for Great Grammy. Gram said she wished it was still so easy – something pretty, inexpensive, and then you were done.
When I asked Gram about what they had for toys around the turn of that century, she couldn’t remember a lot. One year she and her sister had china dolls. Uncle Mike had a flock of sheep, with cardboard bodies covered with glued on wool. I had a teeny frying pan, and a tiny cup and saucer she said had been hers. Back beyond that I do not know. Christmas was a bigger deal elsewhere. Every year Christmas tree cutters came from Pennsylvania to harvest another year of trees, but the family had no tree until my mother was born. New England was not of celebrating stock – even into the 1850s Boston schools kept open on December 25 and truancy was declared if you didn’t show up. The Alcotts apparently celebrated somewhat, at least in Little Women they did, on a reasonable scale.
Somewhere along we got slurped up by a sort of Christmas Machine: “But on to the presents,” Dylan Thomas’s small boy blurted, and here we are. We used to make a lot of our gifts – marvelous pieces of wooden road machinery, an array of clothes for a new doll, pipe stands and cigarette holders for the tobacco-enjoying majority around us. Dad made a crib for my doll. Mom made cobbler aprons one year – three different colors of cheerful fabric for Gram, Aunt Mattie, and maybe me. Mom and I had matching aprons Gram made us. They made candy and embroidered dish towels (OK, Gram did not embroider!) Mom knitted as long as she could – sweaters that were cozy by association as well as material adorned my wardrobe.
Daytimes, the boys and I took over the woodshop and sawed and hammered and painted. Inexpertly sewn things and hastily glued and glittered objects were produced. We did used to take our allowances to Ben Franklin for a few things. All I remember is minute blue bottles of Evening in Paris for Mom and once a pair of pliers for Dad, which I immediately told him about. Even in our early married days, we still made toys for the kids, mittens in special designs.
But somewhere along, I got captured by the Christmas Machine and started to think the things I made weren’t good enough, or enough at all. I’d make something, and then I’d buy something that was “better.” I am trying to go back to where fabric and yarn were better than plastic and that time spent is better than “gotta get it done, gotta get enough.” It may take a few years to get back in the swing. But then, it took quite a number to get out of it!