How I Discovered the True Meaning of Christmas
I was born on a farm during the winter of 1955, just a few weeks before Christmas. By the age of seven I had experienced many Christmas celebrations, and each celebration brought on another level of disappointment as it appeared that I was not getting the gifts I felt I deserved - the gifts and toys kids on TV were getting. You know, the toys those rich little snot nosed undeserving kids were getting year after year after year! I felt the toys I got were the rich kids rejects and that Santa Clause was a big fat red nosed fake who ate too many cookies and drank too much boot legged whisky at each stop to the point that by the time he got to my house he just didn't give a damn.
However, one Christmas after my eight birthday, something remarkable happened which would change my attitude towards Christmas celebrations, and life in general. Usually my parents would just buy my siblings and I some new clothes and if we had a good harvest we would get a few new toys. Unfortunately, that particular year a strong rain with even stronger winds rose from the Atlantic ocean. While traveling in a tornado fashion of up to 110 miles per hour it found its way 60 miles inland and washed all our crops away. In addition to the crop damage there was damage to the barns, the house, and we lost a few animals and things were just awful for families everywhere within a 100 mile radius and more.
We found ourselves with no money, little food, and no hope of recovering our losses. I remember seeing the look of hopelessness on my parents face as they tried to comfort and reassure us that all would be well. I went to bed that Christmas evening feeling that if we just had food in the morning I would be grateful - or even if the morning came at all. Well, the morning did come - as it always does no matter what the previous day was like, and to my absolute surprise my siblings and I woke up to not only food, but to our delight there were gifts and toys beneath the tree…..yes, our own toys which were repaired, repainted, and wrapped with a hand made card identifying the recipient. Excitement filled the room as I watched my siblings rip into their gifts as if they were the last gifts on earth. As I pondered what my present would be I looked and looked and eventually found it carefully tucked at the base of the tree. I reluctantly picked up the light weight package, thinking it was just another rich kid reject and wondered what it could be. I reluctantly ripped the wrappings away to discover nothing more than a little brown, cotton stuffed, plastic face monkey which stood about eight inches tall.
Feeling a sense of rejection once again, I looked at that little brown, cotton stuffed, plastic face monkey and it stared back at me with that permanent grin. I touched its nose thinking it would say something – but it said nothing. I looked for a string to pull hoping for some sort of reaction – but there was no string. I pinched its feet but no matter what I did that little brown plastic face monkey with the round brown eyes just stared back at me. I then pulled it close to my face and looked deep into its eyes and again it just stared back - emotionless with piercing plastic eyes. I laid the little brown, cotton stuffed, plastic face monkey on the couch and realized why the rich kids had rejected it, because it was stupid. I looked at my mother and back at the monkey and began looking for another toy. After a disappointing search I went over to pick up the monkey and it just starred as if to say……don’t worry – be happy! My mother looked at me and softly said…”do you like your gift honey?” I smiled, gave her a big a hug, and jumped on the couch forgetting everything else around me.
After holding the little monkey and seeing the laughter of my other siblings with their toys I gained a sense of appreciation for my new little friend who would later become my confident. Whenever I had a problem he listened. He never chastised me, or called me stupid. I would take him to bed. I would take him on walks through the wheat and corn fields the following year. I would sneak him to school hiding him in the overly large winter coat handed down to me from my brother, who was four years older than me. The coat was handed down to him from another older sibling, who received it from my father, who probably received it from his father, who most likely received it from his father. Nevertheless, what a lovely, tough winter coat that was, and by the way, it was wrapped as my clothing gift. It was carefully patched and professionally died a new color and it looked and smelled new. Anyway, I digress - that sweet, little plastic faced brown monkey became my best friend among eight other siblings, and countless cousins.
After all the gifts were opened the family gathered around the fireplace singing songs and listening to the crackling of the firewood as the image and serenity of the moment took me to a place somewhere on a Hollywood TV show where everyone got what they wanted for Christmas and more. Where the father stood at the head of the table, declaring the family was blessed with riches beyond their wildest imaginations.
We had a talent show that night which lasted into the wee hours of morning. Everyone, including my parents would get their chance to perform an act or sing a song to win the secret prize. While the performances were going on I sat daydreaming, patiently awaiting my turn to take the top end of the broom stick which was the makeshift microphone. As my mother announced the next contestant I was still engulfed in a world far away until my brother nudged me and said….”It’s your turn stupid.” I quickly Jumped to my feet and began singing an old Sam Cook song titled “A Change is Gonna Come” “I was born by the river in a little tent, and just like that river I’ve been running ever since……..It’s been a long time coming but I know a change is gonna come.”
That song was not what I planned on singing. I was planning to sing something by the Temptations, or Aretha Franklin, or something manly like an old BB King down and out, my baby done left me so leave me alone kind of song, but the image of the Hollywood show was fresh on my mind and out came Sam Cook. Well, I made it through a few bars and was certain that I was the winner. I took my bow and while thanking my audience my father turned to my mother and whispered “if I die tomorrow make sure that boy gets a good education because professional singing ‘aint’ in his cards.”
Well, I retreated to my seat as the next sibling took her turn with the makeshift microphone. I did not hear her sing because by then I was engaged in a mental conversation with my little monkey friend whom I had given the name ‘Seed Monkey” because when I returned to my seat there was a little orange seed on his face, apparently placed there by my ‘still laughing at my singing" big brother.
I came back to reality to hear the last chorus of ‘Santa Clause Is Coming to Town’ sung by my little five years old sister, who incidentally won the secret prize which turned out be nothing more than a beautifully wrapped, extra piece of candy – woop-de-doo! It was awarded to her with elegance, and compassion and she accepted it as if it was an Oscar for best performance in a family drama. It wasn’t that she could really sing, she only won because she was five years old and the baby. In other words, she was cute and the favorite to win. Anyway, my parents would later regret awarding her the gift as they could not get her to shut up as she sang the same silly song for hours afterwards. They should have given me the prize as I would have simply eaten the candy, shut up, and went back to sleep.
Anyhoo………The lesson I learned from that experience is that Christmas is truly about family. It’s about loving and appreciating each other. It’s not about how much toys or gifts you get or don’t get. It’s about felling secure and loved, and protected, and knowing that know matter how tough life gets you don’t suffer alone. Your family, no matter how dysfunctional they may be will suffer with you. Christmas is about giving yourself unselfishly, no matter how much or how little of you is available to give. It’s about humility and accepting whatever a friend or a loved one has to offer and being grateful that you have someone who cares enough to just think about you! The Christmas of 1963 changed not just my attitude towards Christmas but my attitude towards life!
Both my parents are deceased now but what they did that year was remarkable. They gave my siblings and I a foundation of love and gratitude that will never be shaken. Three of my siblings have since passed away but those who remain meet every year for Thanksgivings and the day after Christmas. We don’t give each other gifts. We give each other -----each other!
I don’t know what became of my little brown faced seed monkey. The last time I saw him was when I left home at 18 to join the military. I am now 61 years old. I’ll never forget the simplicity of the gift and how after a week I felt that those rich snot nosed TV land kids had nothing on me! I was the winner of the greatest gift that year. They had great toys. I had a great family who through their dysfunctional, unwavering, unbiased acceptance changed my life and helped me find the true meaning of Christmas and the true meaning of family!
This year, I pray that everyone will look beyond the glitter of the season and find each other. Invest in family..no matter how dysfunctional they may be!!