Running on Empty: What we keep from Christmas

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As a kid, Christmas was about getting my Red Ryder BB gun. Of course, that Red Ryder took many forms.

For several years, it was the Transformers that littered my bedroom, from The Duke-like Optimus Prime to the brash young Hot Rod. At twelve, they transformed into the Power Glove by Nintendo, a technological marvel capable of translating physical movements into video game actions. We returned that one when we discovered it wasn’t quite as marvelous as advertised.

And once, in the culmination of all Christmas gifting experiences, the G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flag appeared under my tree, insofar as a six-foot air craft carrier playset could squeeze under anything. I begged for it as soon as I laid eyes on its larger than life packaging.

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My mother made it happen, like she always did, in what would come to be known by my best friend and I as The Best Christmas Ever. We had lived across the street from each other since the summer before third grade, and our Christmases soon became entwined, one mirroring the other. I think our mothers even shopped in tandem one season, to cover more ground in the pre-internet days.

Mom likes to remember our Christmases as being about Jesus. Truthfully, they were more like the frantic desperation in the movie A Christmas Story.

We drifted through traditional holiday moments together –cutting down a Christmas tree at the local tree farm, making sugar cookies with homemade icing, and weeping on stage in the church Christmas pageant when I thought the girl next to me was snickering at my lyrical flub during Silent Night.

She wasn’t.

But none of that was Christmas to me. To me, Christmas was about anxiety, intensity, and a teeth-pulling crawl to Christmas morning when I finally ripped into those packages in the living room. I knew more would appear on Christmas Eve, but the few my mother slipped under the tree branches during the weeks leading up to the big day were enough to drive me out of my skull.

Avarice. Single-minded want, not for food or warmth or other necessities, but for a toy. A novelty. Hundreds of trinkets, not one kept close over the years.

Sadly, that’s what Christmas was to me. Or at least I thought it was.

I lost my father two years ago on New Year’s Eve. He went in for routine knee surgery and never woke up. And now, on Christmas, I think of that year when Santa Claus snuck a new red bicycle down the chimney. I couldn’t wait to try it out, despite the frigid winter grip outside, and soon dad was sprinting down an ice-covered driveway, steadying the back of my bike seat and grinning bigger than even my pale face could manage.

That makes sense when you think about it. I was hurtling down a sheet of ice on a two-wheeled lightning bolt with a 40-something man wheezing behind me. And I forgot to ask him how to stop.

And then there were the countless Christmases (actually, probably about eight or nine) that I remember sitting on the floor in sleepered feet, turning my stocking upside down on the carpet to see what surprises fell out. Mom and dad sat wondrously, peacefully on the loveseat together, grinning with coffee in hand, as we all rooted through newfound treasure.

I never felt so warm and safe as I did right then on Christmas morning.

And I think about the first Christmas with my mom in our new apartment after their divorce. Money was tight, and she felt guilty about the shoddy decorations we drug out of battered boxes to hang on our artificial tree.

I deftly snatched up a piece of Double Bubble bubble gum, stabbed a hook through one end of the twisted wrapping, and hung it on an open branch.

“There,” I said triumphantly. “We have plenty to decorate with.” And my mother smiled.

To this day, I still hang that same piece of gum on my family’s tree as a reminder of leaner days.

Come to think of it, I guess I kept a bit more from spoiled Christmases than I thought. Maybe those Christmases, perhaps, didn’t come from a store. Maybe, just maybe … they meant a little bit more.

Merry Christmas.

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