Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Giving and Getting Great Christmas Gifts

Despite my mixed musings about Santa in my last post, I have a great fondness for the Christmas season. My parents made Christmas a fun time for our family when I was young. If they were seeking to instill lifelong pleasant memories, their efforts paid off well. We developed traditions that I still cherish, some of which my own family mimics today.

Our working class family had sufficient. But we were far from well off. Still, Mom and Dad worked hard to be generous to their kids at Christmas while trying not to kill the family budget. We always got some great gifts, even if we rarely got the major items we wanted.

Actually, the lack of getting big ticket items we wanted may have been one of the best Christmas gifts of all. I often came to cherish some of the smaller items I received. And unrewarded immediate desires were often better rewarded in the long run.

I still remember very much liking a flying whirligig toy I got. You'd shoot it into the air using a kind of a slingshot device (a rubber band tied to a stick). When it reached its apex, the thin plastic wings would unfold and the thing would gently helicopter to earth. You can buy these things nowadays for a buck.

Another great inexpensive toy I received as a kid was Sea Diver by Parker Brothers, which was a Cartesian diver. We regularly got board games (this was the b.v.g. era: before video games), Hot Wheels cars and tracks, action figures, various balls for sports, etc.

When we did actually get bigger ticket items, they were things that our parents were pretty sure would get used and would hold up well. One year they bought a used ping-pong table that got quite a bit of use for three decades. One brother got a Schwinn 5-speed Stingray bike one Christmas. (He really needed a new bike and it also covered his birthday.) I got a cassette tape player one year. That was a big deal back then.

But year after year my parents would fail to get the big ticket things we REALLY wanted. In retrospect, I can see that most of these things suffered from one or more significant deficiencies, such as being too expensive, too bulky (Where are you going to put it?), too flimsy, too narrow focused to hold our interest for long (fun for the first half hour, but not so much after that), and/or would have been jointly owned and would have caused never ending quarrels.

One year air hockey tables were all the rage. We begged and pleaded for one of these amazing devices. These things were new and expensive. Only high end folks could afford to be early adopters. Besides, even the expensive home use tables tended to break easily. They were pretty large too. I later noted long unused and/or broken air hockey tables consuming space in friends' homes. We received many wonderful gifts on Christmas morning that year. But an air hockey table was not among them.

My brother and I used Lego blocks to build a frame that resembled an air hockey table (complete with goals) on the floor of our bedroom. We put layer after layer of Mom's furniture wax on a rectangular spot on the hardwood floor of our bedroom, fervently buffing each layer until the surface was incredibly slick. Two small Tupperware containers became our mallets and a poker chip became our puck.

We played our makeshift air hockey game (sans air) on the floor of our bedroom day after day over the Christmas break. We kept playing it for the next couple of months. In fact, our fake air hockey court outlasted some of the fancy-shmancy air hockey tables that some of our friends got for Christmas. Only, when we lost interest and our Lego frame broke to the point that we didn't want to put it back together (sometime in late spring), we simply put the blocks back in our Lego bucket.

I sometimes find my wife and I going to great ends trying to get each child the perfect set of Christmas gifts. Occasionally I step back from the heat of shopping and remember the makeshift air hockey table from my childhood. While that was far from the only time we made our own fun without spending more money, I wonder what might have been lost had my parents insisted on getting us exactly what we wanted that Christmas. And then I relax a bit about Christmas shopping.

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