One year during the depths of the Depression in the 1930s, a farm family in southern Idaho announced to their three children, two boys and a girl, that there was no extra money for anything special for Christmas that year. They had food for the table, and so were better off than many, and that would simply have to do. There may have been a homemade gift or two, but certainly nothing bought from a store. The children steeled themselves for a Christmas that would be less than what they had known in past years of their young lives.
On Christmas Eve, the little family went on a trip–how long or how far I do not know. When they arrived to their destination, they found much to their delight that there were presents for them, one per child. Apparently these were given by a kindly, perhaps relatively affluent couple without children of their own–whether an aunt and uncle, a couple from church or neighbors, I do not know.
One of those children was my father. And the sheer joy of receiving that gift during a dark time in his family’s life had a profound impact on his life, and indirectly on mine.
Like many children of the Depression, my father was tight with a buck. He threw nickels around like they were manhole covers, as Mike Ditka once famously said of George Halas. And yet he had the capacity for generosity, and this capacity always found expression at Christmas time. My father loved Christmas like Ebeneezer following the nightly spectres, and his enthusiasm for the holiday can be traced to that one act of charity. And it was an enthusiasm that he transmitted to me as a part of my inheritance from him.
I wish I knew the details of the story better; he died 26 years ago, so I can’t ask him. I don’t even know what the gift was. I have a toy that belonged to him–a 1930s vintage car, about the size of a shoe box, made of heavy metal, painted bright red, with some sort of ancient mechanism that hasn’t worked since before my own birth. I keep it on the hutch just as you enter my front door. I like to imagine this was the gift that sparked his love affair with Christmas, which in turn led to my own.