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At home, Christmas came and stayed

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000

It's the mean season again.

Go ahead. Call me a Scrooge. It has been done before.

I don't get excited over other people's Christmas lights, or go out of my way to make my house look like a carnival midway. If that makes me a Scrooge, then bah, humbug.

I don't spend sleepless hours trying to think of unique gifts that will forever endear me to the recipient, or go into hock to impress in December and depress the rest of the year.

I don't believe the Spirit of Christmas has a cot set up somewhere in the mall.

If that makes you call me a Scrooge, fine.

It's just that I don't think the spirit of Christmas resides in any of those easy, superficial expressions. If it did, all those Christmases I spent in South Georgia listening to the wind singing through the pines and our house, hoping my married sister would bring something from Florida other than that bag of oranges, would have been cold and miserable. But they were not. I spent them feeling warm and at peace with myself and the rest of the world.

Even though I never got the bicycle I always wanted and didn't even learn to ride till I was 14 or 15 years old, after Danny, the little boy down the road who called me his big brother, got one.

Even though every year I had to make up a list of gifts because, when school holidays were over, teachers had a habit of wanting their students to write a couple of paragraphs about what they did for Christmas and "what Santa brought you."

Our money had gone to Williamson's Grocery and West End Milling and Feed, where it was spent on things that helped us get to and through the next planting season. Most of the other kids wrote about the toys and clothes they got. I did, too, eventually, after the first couple of years when I used my schoolbooks to dream up my Christmas loot.

In those years, I was the proud recipient of such unlikely stuff as drums and toy soldiers (not the GI Joe variety, but the kind you see in The Nutcracker -- and in grade-school readers). I even left Santa cookies and milk in those compositions.

Yes, there were times when I felt pretty bad, especially those years when my father couldn't afford to do his little jig on the porch and end it with "Sandy Claus done been here and gone," which meant I had a cap pistol and holster set, or a cowboy hat, or my sister had a plastic tea set.

But mostly I felt bad because I lied about it in those compositions and to my classmates. I felt bad because I knew my parents would have wanted me to stand up without shame and say, "I didn't get anything for Christmas."

But my teachers wanted a composition, and I didn't think a bit of bravery would cut it. Six words just don't look right broken into three paragraphs.

I wish I had had the sense then to tell them the truth. I wish I could have known then that the gifts I was getting wouldn't one day stop working and fall apart like the cap pistols did, or eventually be outgrown as the cowboy hats were, or get scattered and lost like my sister's tea sets did.

None of their gifts had anything to do with Christmas trees or lights. I was getting them even before we had electricity.

None of them had anything to do with Cabbage Patch Dolls or Beanie Babies or Playstations, or whatever the fad of the season was.

None of them were expensive, but not even the Rockefellers could have bought any of them.

That is worth noting in a state where more than one of every five children lives in poverty, in a time when the pressure for them to own the latest advertising success is far greater than it was for me to lie to my teachers and classmates, in a climate where not getting those gifts means a child suffers much more than the few moments of discomfort I endured.

Of course, these are not gifts that can be packaged in pretty paper and tied with colorful ribbons and put under a fancifully decorated tree. They are not that easily given. But they can be given under any circumstance.

In a time when their personal safety meant my parents had to say "yessir" and "no ma'am" to people half their age and often half as deserving of respect, they gave me the gift of self-respect.

In a time when their welfare meant smiling and acting as if they were happy to be cheated out of their labor, they gave me the gift of self-worth, which has nothing to do with the clothes you wear or what's in your pocket.

In a time when their livelihood meant allowing people with the intelligence of a rock, even though they were allowed to go to school, to think they were smarter, they gave me the gift of independent thought, which means you listen to others, appreciate their input, but form your own opinions, and never let the muddled thinking of a crowd distract you.

In a time when custom and statute said differently, they gave me the confidence to know that nobody was better than I. They also gave me the accompanying gift of common sense to know that I am no better than anyone else.

Of course, such gifts should be given year round, and not just at Christmas time. But Christmas time is when they are needed most by those children who are not so inundated and busy with the latest marketing coups to suffer their absence. They will need them later, when their lives outgrow the toys.

So call me a Scrooge as you spangle your life with lights and pretty little packages. But know that just because the bright lights are on doesn't mean the spirit of Christmas is home.

And just because they're not even up doesn't mean valuable gifts aren't being given.

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