I grew up in that mythical era of Christmas that occurred after the greatest boom in U.S. history following World War II, when parents and grandparents attempted to spoil us like no generation before. The Greatest Generation was also the Greatest Spoilers of Children in History. I was a little later than the era depicted in A Christmas Story, but it was pretty close.
Of course, I didn’t complain at the time. I don’t recall any of us complaining. No child I knew ever stood up on Christmas morning to lecture a parent for participating in this orgy of commerce. After all, it seemed to make them just as happy as it made us. A symbiotic relationship if ever there was one. You give us enormous, over-the-top gifts supplied by a man from the North Pole and we make you happy by ripping open these carefully wrapped gifts and going apoplectic with joy. No wonder so many of us got divorced. We could never find a relationship that wonderful again.
Remember that phrase that went around in the ’80s – whoever dies with the most toys wins? I’m sure it was born from that era. We had Leonard’s Toyland where Santa had a Rocket Express monorail; the Sear’s, Montgomery Ward’s and Penney’s Christmas catalogs; Saturday morning cartoons to hawk toys and all manner of innovative items to keep us happy, from the Mousetrap Game to G.I. Joe.
We weren’t a wealthy household, but my father worked for Rock Island Railroad. We would get up early on Christmas morning to unwrap our first round of Christmas (there were later visits to the grandparents and perhaps other relatives with more booty). We rose early so my father could be there to see us rip into our presents. He then headed off to work. Such were the economics of the day that he earned something like double-time and a half for working on Christmas. It basically paid for Christmas, he always said.
Like most families then we had a real tree, but as often as not my father “built” the tree, Frankenstein-like. As I said, he worked on the railroad and, starting in November, rail cars loaded with Christmas trees. Many of the vendors would reject some of the trees for being damaged or simply not being marketable.
My father, using his handyman skills, wasn’t put off by this. He would bring home one of these abandoned trees that resembled the forlorn, mangled tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas. He would then take limbs from other castoff and reject trees or limbs that had simply broken off as the trees were unloaded, drill holes in the main tree and create some semblance of a Christmas tree. Sometimes he would just add a limb or two, constructing a whole tree, albeit one with a limb or two from a different type of tree. Occasionally more extensive surgery was required. The tree might be a Douglas fir for the bottom third, then a Scottish pine for another third, then topped off with a Blue Spruce.
I would bring friends over to have them guess what was different about our tree. Maybe they were being polite, but I don’t think anyone ever did.
That era is kind of gone now, though children are still spoiled and now it seems more year-round than just during the holiday. How could you possibly wait on the latest version of Fortnite until Christmas?
This is my first Christmas without any parents, my father having passed away this year. While I got plenty of toys (which other children in the family played with until they finally gave up the Mattel ghost), this year I keep thinking about my father carefully creating a beautiful Christmas tree out of unwanted parts.
As American poet Hart Crane said in his poem about Charlie Chaplin:
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can
The Christmas spirit is one of giving. What better way to express that than to give one of those discarded trees a new life and allow it in turn to gift us with joy on Christmas. My father made a “grail of laughter of an empty ash can.” That was a Christmas gift that I won’t forget and will hope to take that spirit with me throughout life.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.