Family & Friends

Christmases Past: Giving, Receiving—and Deception

To my child’s mind, God and Santa were conflated into an omnipresent overseer. This being seemed to me yet another authoritarian (on top of parents, teachers, older siblings, nosy neighbors, etc.) with whom I could so easily get into trouble. Drifting off to sleep, I’d think of the words “he sees you when you’re sleeping,” and feel uneasy. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good,” the song insisted. I hated that feeling of being watched. There were so many ways to be naughty rather than nice. Yet, in spite of Santa’s role in triggering my perpetually guilty conscience, I loved Christmas: colored lights, candles, presents, the smell of the outdoors inside, the exciting ritual of unwrapping and remembering each individual tree ornament, snowfall, the all-permeating sense of mystery. How could anyone not love all that?

Every December my father handed each of his seven offspring an envelope filled with brand-new, sharply crisp bills. The envelope had an oval window through which peeked George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know how my parents could afford to dole out that money every year. Even if the littlest kids got only five one-dollar bills, it added up in a household of nine people and a varying number of dogs, cats, gerbils, and goldfish. I also don’t know how my father came up with the ritual, or whether he intended it as a lesson in giving. But that’s what it was. (It was a lesson in budgeting as well, it occurs to me only now.)

The first order of Christmas was to use that money to shop for each other. We made lists, whispering among ourselves, of what to give one another and our grandparents and maybe a favorite aunt or cousin or friend or two. The older siblings advised us younger ones. And so it was that my sister, seven-plus years my senior, told me about a briefly popular item known as “soap on a rope.” As she explained it, a person could wear the bar of soap, and then he or she would always know where it was. I envisioned my father wearing a bulky soap necklace. Would he tuck it under his shirt and tie, I wondered, or would he wear it over them? The latter, I hoped. It was a go. I was surprised and disappointed to discover later that it was to be worn only in the shower. My father did not proudly sport my fragrant gift when he went to the office each day.

A few years later, when my oldest brother had gone off to college, I learned at school, or maybe from the dentist, that for optimum oral hygiene, a toothbrush should be changed every three months. I was worried that Ben, off on his own, wouldn’t know about this important limitation. Four toothbrushes—a year’s worth!—seemed a perfect gift for a college freshman. I could even repeat the gift the following year, and every year after that. I carefully chose toothbrushes in four different colors, the last one pink. Astonishingly, Ben does not remember my gift, earnestly and thoughtfully chosen with his dental health in mind. Why I do, fifty years after the fact, is one of the mysteries of life.

At about age six or seven, I came up with the idea that a bottle of Elmer’s Glue would be useful to my paternal grandfather, a builder. Each year our extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins—converged at my grandparents’ big old rambling house on Christmas evening. We kids could have soft drinks with maraschino cherries (which my grandmother pronounced mara-SKEE-no) while the adults imbibed  spiked eggnog, manhattans, and highballs. We kids snuck off to slide down the bannister of the broad, curving staircase and look at the photographs of our still-extending family that lined the walls, laughing at how young we used to look. Later, guitars, banjo, mandolin, and even the occasional ukulele came out, and the sing-along began. Christmas songs came second to Tin Pan Alley favorites, “Harvest Moon,” “Has Anybody Seen My Gal,” and last of all, “Good Night, Irene.”

At some point, the matriarch and patriarch opened the presents we had bought them. I was shy in front of the twenty-some people watching when Grandpa got to my carefully wrapped gift and asked who it was from. I waved meekly. He unwrapped it and held it up, cracking, “Elmer, where’s Elsie?” Everyone laughed but me, because I didn’t know what he meant or why it was funny.

If there were lessons about giving built into our family’s Christmas rituals, there were also lessons about receiving. Grandpa saw my face and changed his tone. “Well, thank you very much, Amy,” he said, graciously. “That’s very thoughtful. I’ll get a lot of use out of this.” I remember how appreciated, and grown up, those words made me feel. In a picture taken at my grandparents’ house, quite possibly that same year, I’m holding a doll cradle in my arms. The smile on my face communicates how happy I was.

untitledThree generations of the Hughes family at Christmastime in 1965.

But it was around that time that I did something decidedly not in the spirit of giving and receiving. A friend of my parents had dropped by, and she came upstairs to the room I shared with my sister, who wasn’t home. She had presents for us, she said. She unwrapped the tissue paper from a small all-white porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary. “This is for you.” She pressed it into my hands. We were Catholic, and we went to church, but we weren’t a particularly religious family—there were no crucifixes or portraits of saints or Bible reading in our house. I was not a devout child; I didn’t love Jesus and Mary as some of my classmates did.

I’m sure I said thank you. I hope I masked my disappointment. And then the woman revealed the present she had for Jan. It was a silver brooch, in the shape of a Christmas tree, adorned with twinkling blue crystals. Santa-God surely saw it all. When my sister got home, I told her our neighbor had brought her the little Mary statue. She seemed to like it, setting it on the mirrored dressing table that I so envied. “And this is what she gave to me.” The silver and blue Christmas tree sparkled on my chest, where I had pinned it.

It was a tacky piece of costume jewelry and soon lost its luster. Claiming it was a childish thing to do. I’m sure I never admitted to it in Confession, though it weighed on my conscience. In time I stopped believing in the all-seeing Santa-God. But the memory of deceiving my sister so I could have the shiny bauble has never faded away. It’s one of the enduring scraps from Christmases past, right there alongside Elmer and the toothbrushes and soap on a rope.

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  • Barb Maple December 26, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    This is quite wonderful Amy and made me smile as I recalled some of my own Christmas memories. Thank you for sharing this – you write so beautifully. Such a wonderful time of year with friends and family. We have Tom’s mom with us and at 95 she still makes the world’s best mashed potatoes! Hugs

    • Amy K Hughes December 27, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      Thanks, Barb! Enjoy those mashed potatoes!

  • Bill December 26, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Amy’s recollections of family lore over the decades always brings up floods of my own. I was an only child until age 15 when my mother’s second marriage produced the brother and then sister that I had always wanted. But I always spent Christmas surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles. Well into my teens I always had wrapped gifts for each of my first cousins who would be at the joint family dinner on Christmas day. I must have spent hours in Woolworth’s in the days before Walmart barged into the scene across America choosing which trinket or confection was best for which cousin. One of my favorite chosen gifts for a time was a collection of Lifesaver candies with probably every available flavor packaged to look like a book with the tiny barrels of candy stacked on each “leaf” as you opened the book. Thanks once again, Amy, for sharing your family and taking me back to my own.

    • Amy K Hughes December 27, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks for reading and your nice comments, Bill. I got one of those Lifesavers books for Christmas one year. I can’t wait to read your memoir!

  • Stephen December 24, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Well, I think this year’s gift list is all settled. A diamond and sapphire broach for Amy, a life-sized lawn statue of the Virgin Mary for Jan, and an electric toothbrush for Ben. Here’s what I want: Your wonderful recollections made me yearn for a Manhattan with a maraschino cherry.

    • Stephen December 24, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      I guess that would be a brooch. but I’m sure we can find something to broach.

      • Amy K Hughes December 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

        Diamonds and sapphires will go nicely with eyes. Thanks, Stephen!

  • Susanna Gaertner December 23, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    I echo Esther’s sentiments and was also touched by the details in your recollection and by how the powerfully you evoked the child’s emotional stake in each of those transactions. Every reader will graft his own memories onto yours, if not with the sense of humor you can pull from them as an adult.
    Thanks for this stirring piece.

  • Brother Ben December 23, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    Good memories, good stories, Amy. I must have a residual memory of those toothbrushes and the lesson that went along with them because I have been a diligent toothbrush switcher and updater for longer than I can remember.

  • Esther Rosenfeld December 23, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Amy, how delightful this read is. I think lots of us share guilty pleasures from childhood, and we maximize them because at our tender ages, we weren’t able to understand the magical (we thought) forces around us. But from our adult vantage point we can forgive ourselves understanding the urges that pulled at us. Love your wry sense of humor that embodies each of the pieces I’ve read.