CHICAGO -- Once upon a time, years ago, one of my newspaper assignments was to help choose letters from readers for a series called "My Favorite Christmas Memory." No one who grew up taking Christmas gifts for granted could forget the hope and disappointment and joy and love that filled those letters.
One man wrote about helping his mother pick up stray pine branches from a Christmas-tree sales lot and tying them to a broom handle to make a Christmas tree for his younger sisters. They couldn't afford anything else.
What another man remembered most about his impoverished childhood was a year when his only Christmas gift was a paper stocking with a handful of jelly beans and how happy it made him feel. It meant, he said, that "Santa cared about me."
A woman, then 46, told how she had longed all of her childhood for a doll but had never had one -- until her daughter's fiance, understanding that the hurt still festered, gave her one for Christmas.
A grandmother recalled that Santa Claus never came to their house -- perhaps because they were poor or perhaps because they were Polish. One Christmas her mother scraped together enough money to buy her a doll. For weeks after Christmas, she took the doll outside every day and held it up toward the sky, so "God or Santa Claus" could see how much she loved it and what good care she took of it.
A perfect baby
A mother wrote about having her 9-month-old baby chosen to play the Christ Child in the Christmas pageant. Everyone admired the beautiful, quiet infant in the manger. "It was the last time anyone considered him perfect," she remembered. "The next week he was diagnosed as being severely retarded."
Christmas adds extra poignancy to everyday life. It exaggerates our longings. It magnifies our disappointments. It brings family relationships into sharper focus. And for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, it freeze-frames memories that can stay in the mind for a lifetime.
That's why loving moms are lining up at 6 a.m. to try to buy a Tickle Me Elmo, even though they know their offspring will be tired of it before New Year's. And that's why they are shelling out for a Barbie with designer label clothes, lest their daughter be the only girl in her class without one.
The hazard, of course, is that the Elmos and the Barbies and the Martha Stewarting and the fatigue and the logistics of Christmas dinner and the rounds of Christmas parties make it hard to find a hush in the rush to talk about what really matters and why we have Christmas anyway.
Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
Pub Date: 12/18/96