When I was little, my mother used a numbering (or lettering) system to label Christmas presents. Apparently, at some point she got tired of her many children shaking presents with their names on them and guessing what they’d been given. If she numbered them, she figured, she would thwart her children’s tendency to spoil the surprises she had planned for them. I should note here that my mother also thought she would conserve cake from my siblings’ voracious teen-aged appetites by freezing it. This ploy failed when my brothers and sisters discovered the frozen cake is still tasty and ate it anyway. Similarly, her present numbering system didn’t always turn out quite as she had planned. One particularly memorable year my mother lost her list altogether and couldn’t remember whose present was whose. So, she had each of us open a present with a different number so that she could figure out what her system had been. It was a typical Mum kind of moment: her own scheme backfiring on her, with much laughter ensuing—and all wrapped up (or unwrapped, as it were) with a pragmatic solution. It was interesting, though, that first round of presents: whenever you opened something, you knew that you were likely uncovering a surprise for someone other than yourself.
My mother’s desire to protect secrecy in the holiday season was almost certainly related to the fact that money was tight. My father worked as a machinist for Gorton’s seafood, and there wasn’t much wiggle room in the household budget. This required that my mother work creatively with limited resources to make Christmas morning special for all eight of her children. She was good at that, as she was with so many of the challenges of raising children on a shoestring (while still making all of us feel loved). One of her talents was, simply, that she paid attention.
I’m not sure if I ever gave my mother a list of things that I wanted for Christmas, or for my birthday. But she knew, and more often than not the thing/s I wanted the most were there. She just always noticed and remembered the things that we all liked, and she could tell what we wanted most. Even when we wanted something that stretched her financially, she usually found a way. There are pictures of my sister Chris with a guitar in hand when she was about 15 or 16. Guitars weren’t cheap, but she wanted one so badly—and my mother simply couldn’t resist the chance to make her happy. Something similar happened when I was in high school. There was a leather goods store in town, and I coveted a leather backpack. But, it was pricey. I can’t recall now how much it cost, exactly, but I know it was more than I thought my parents could afford. Yet somehow, it ended up in a box under the Christmas tree. I had that backpack until about 5 or 6 years ago, when it finally gave out altogether. More than the bag itself, it was the memory of my mother finding a way to afford it, just to make me happy, that made it special to me.
My Dad had his moments, too. One year—mind you, this was back in the 1980s (otherwise the story doesn’t make sense)—Dad copied my favorite Christmas movie, which at the time was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” onto a VHS tape for me. But he didn’t want to leave the commercials in, so he borrowed my brother Steve’s VCR for a day, connected it with his, and then went through the whole movie and cut every commercial. Then, of course, he put it into my stocking as nonchalantly as possible…because, you know, Dad didn’t admit to feelings very well.
When I had kids, I remembered how all this felt…but I also knew that we are fortunate enough that my kids would not have to think “Oh, my parents can’t afford that.” I’m grateful for that, but wanted to instill in them the wonder of giving that I learned growing up. Thus Home-made Present Night of Hanukkah was born. And every year, it is the home-made presents that my kids give the most time to thinking about, especially in giving to others.
I guess I did something right along the way, then.
(me, probably when I was not quite 2 years old?)