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Two Views of Christmas
by Walt Mills of Recipe du Jour

Without thinking much about it, I had imagined my older sister and I shared pretty much the same memories of growing up.  It was a surprise to find out that wasn’t exactly the case, and that the perspective of a few years difference in age gave us two parallel but never quite touching views of Christmas.   

“I remember our Christmases in Florida best,” she said as we talked on the phone the other night.  “Daddy always cut a tree down from out back near Grandpa’s workshop.  They were scrawny Florida pines, full of sap that stuck all over our hands.  I remember once after Christmas was over, Stu and I dragged the tree back and tried to plant it in a hole we dug. I was sure it would grow.”

She was talking about herself and our older brother Stuart, two years her senior, six years older than me.  I would have been only two or three at the time, too young to be allowed to come along, or too young to remember going.

“The whole family would decorate the tree with strings of popcorn and construction paper garlands.  We made snow for the tree with Tide soap powder mixed with water.  When it hardened it clung to the branches and turned white.”

We grew up south of Miami on a citrus grove that also contained two little houses.  The stone house in the back belonged to my grandmother, and we lived in the small front house.  It had started out as a garage and had been converted to a house by tacking on three bedrooms.  There was a wood stove for cooking and for heat on the rare cool mornings in winter.  The Christmas tree stood against the far wall away from the stove and across from the long dining table where all of our relatives gathered on Sundays and holidays for dinner.

“You were too young to remember the Christmas Daddy built us a swing set in the living room.  Mom told us not to get out of bed or Santa wouldn’t come.  We started yelling that we had to go to the bathroom.  Finally she came to the door and said ‘Okay, but you have to keep your eyes closed.’  On the way back we peeked through our fingers and saw the swing.”

I remember it sitting in the yard. It was big, made out of A-frames, and over the years slowly turned a rusty orange color in the rain.          

“We used to be allowed to pick our own toys from the Sears catalog.  We had exactly $20 to spend and we’d be excited for weeks looking at the toys and figuring the exact prices with tax and shipping.  I would change my mind a dozen times before we made the final order.”

Here my sister’s views and mine are very similar.  I haven’t seen a Sears catalog in thirty years, but I can still remember how the toy section looked: colorful photos of plastic service stations with little plastic men in white coveralls, gray plastic castles with colorful banners, and knights with lances on horseback.  The toy section lay near the middle of the catalog, and after being thumbed through a hundred times the catalog would fall open to our favorite pages on its own.

She said, “We were thrilled with the simplest toys.  There were fewer commercials on TV then.  There wasn’t as much desire to have things that we saw advertised, which we couldn’t have afforded anyway.  I know now that we didn’t have much money, but we didn’t know it then.  When we were growing up, everyone around us was poor, too.”

I never felt deprived growing up.  It was only later, when I began to envy the things others had that I didn’t, that I began to feel poor.  But that was more a spiritual poverty.  As my income rose, the inflation of my expectations made me feel as though I had less.  It wasn’t like that when we were kids and $20 could stretch for weeks at a time as we pored over the catalog.  It was like the parable of the loaves and fishes: We spent the little we had over and over in imagination, and it didn’t run out.  

(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2006 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. Reproduced by permission.  )

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