Paper and Plastic and Ghosts of Christmas Past
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 12-11-2005.
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The decorations are up. I even have the lights up outside. Every day the mailbox is stuffed full of advertisements offering 50, 60 or 70 percent off items that I don't really need or even want. The weather here in Virginia has become downright cold.
Yes, it is Christmas time once again. Just a thought: What is meant by "Free Gift?" Some store or company always wants to give you a "Free Gift." If you had to pay for it, it wouldn't be "free" or a "gift." Those ads get thrown into the trash before I even read them.
In Castaic in the 1950s, and when we lived in Mentryville in the 1960s, all decorations were inside. Oh, a couple of neighbors in Castaic put up a string or two of lights outside, but they were the exception. Since we lived in Mentryville for many of the years, we ran a generator for our electrical needs. Outdoor Christmas lights just were not on the list of electrical needs. We even had to run the generator for lights on the tree inside. We did have a huge tree, what with the 12-foot-high ceilings.
Gift buying and giving was a well-thought out and coordinated effort by the whole family. My mother would make many items, such as an apron for my sister and even a shirt for me.
The second year, and every year thereafter that we lived in Mentryville, I was given a calf to raise, and I could keep whatever profit it brought when I sold it.
Early each December, we would go over to the dairy in Placerita Canyon and select a calf. I think it cost all of $5 big money, then.
My folks had only one credit card, a Standard Oil gas card with a 1-cent per gallon employee discount. It was the only credit card they ever had. Therefore, there was no impulsive shopping in our family. If they didn't have the cash, they didn't buy it period. Now, that is a lesson I didn't ever learn from them at least, not yet.
One year I got a new jacket, some low-top Converse tennis shoes and a case of .22-caliber long-rifle ammunition. That was a good year. In fact, they were all good years, because whatever we got and whatever we gave was from the heart.
We spent long and thoughtful days trying to find out what the family members wanted or needed, and then spent even more days trying to fulfill that want or need. It was never easy, but it was always good to do.
I'm not sure gift-giving today is better. Sure, we give and spend a lot more. We spend about the same amount of shopping time. There are many more stores and the Internet to shop at all year long. I'm not sure that I've ever felt as satisfied about a gift I gave since those days when money was short and love was long.
Looking back, the biggest gift all of us received was the gift of family. All of us would gather at my grandmother's home in Sylmar on Christmas Eve and exchange gifts after a huge meal.
Grandma had a couple of different customs that I've not seen anytime since. She put fresh fruit on her tree apples, oranges, and bananas that my sisters and cousins would take off the tree and eat. I was told it was a custom in her family home, and the custom had come from Germany.
My grandmother also picked one of her children, my folks, or my aunt and uncle, to get a "big" gift each year. It could be a sewing machine, a set of fine china, woodworking tools, and any number of other expensive items. She also got gifts for her five grandchildren and helped buy the gifts we got from our parents. (I didn't know that until recent years.) One year I got a three-speed bike. Now, that was a good year.
Christmas wasn't about giving then so much as it was about the birth of a savior and family.
One Christmas Eve, driving to Sylmar with the three of us kids in the back seat, our father said that if any one of us could name the person on a $100 bill, we could have it. I had seen a $20 bill once, and of course the smaller denominations, but none of us had seen a $100 bill, much less known the face on one. You'd think one of us would have said, "Franklin," but we just couldn't come up with the name. We did get to look at the bill, though.
I think that on my first day of shopping this year, I spent many more Franklins than I wanted to spend. Does it feel better when I do that? Not really. Especially when the credit-card bill arrives.
Maybe I should go out and buy a jacket, some tennis shoes, and a toy for someone in need. Even on a cold Virginia day, a little boy might stay warm and run faster and jump higher. We celebrate the birth of a child who, when grown, said, "What you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me."
It looks like I'm headed back to the mall to get a jacket, some shoes and a toy. This time, I'll pay cash. You know those pieces of paper that come out of an ATM. I've got a plastic card for that, too.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.