By Maria Lagalante Schulz
I read a blog post in the New York Times the other day that asked readers to list their very worst Christmas gifts at http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/tell-us-the-worst-christmas-gift-you-ever-received/?scp=1&sq=worst%20christmas%20presents&st=cse
Most of them were downright hilarious, some were sad, and some killjoys kept telling everyone that “it’s the thought that counts.” Yes, but it’s still funny when you get a gift that
1) Has no thought behind it
2) Was obviously bought for the person who gave it to you, who decided it was too hideous to keep
3) Is half-eaten and/or moth-ridden
It got me to thinking: what was the worst Christmas gift I ever got? I can’t help but feel guilty while I think this, because Christmas gifts (like all other gifts) were my mother’s responsibility.
The thing was, my mother wasn’t always the most organized person—and any mom knows that a lack of organizational skills at Christmas can kill that happy holiday buzz.
Besides having to shop, cook, clean, and wrap gifts for all 7 children, my mother also had to find suitable gifts for her mother, father, brother, mother-in-law, sister and brothers-in-law, her nieces and nephews, work colleagues and assorted friends.
Money was very tight, and her gift selection was often skewed towards gifts that were practical, cheap, or funny. I think her sister (my Aunt Nellie) learned to shop at the same time my mom did, because she often gave my mother gifts like a decanter shaped like a wino, that twirled around on a musical base and played “I’m tired and I wanna go home.” It also allowed you to pour wine out of the bum’s head. Classy!
We only got one gift each, so you really, really hoped that Santa Claus would intervene and get you something you’d asked for. I never really understood why Santa and my mother had the same handwriting, but boy was I glad that he was around. He came through with Dawn dolls, Barbies, baby dolls, Battle Ship, the game of Life and other fun stuff that I never would have gotten if I hadn’t written to him.
There are two years that I remember vividly. The first was in 1973. My father had a really good year, and money was flowing a little more than usual. My brothers, Tony and Jude, came and woke up Chris and me and brought us out to the living room at 4:00 a.m. There was Paul across the room, shining the light from his new GI Joe Camper and sounding its alarm while Goldie barked. Joey was yelling as he tore open a package that had his name on it. Louie handed me a gift, and then another—which was really something, since we didn’t usually get more than one gift from Santa. Chris got GI Joes, I got a Drowsy doll and some Barbies, and all of my other brothers got loads of gifts. There was a lot of laughing and screaming. We were all so excited.
My parents slept through the whole thing, until I went into their room and showed them my Drowsy doll. “Look, Mom,” I said. “Santa’s got the same handwriting as you!” My mother had outdone herself that year, and we were all feeling very merry.
Then, of course, there was the following year. In 1974, my father lost his job when the company he worked for left New York and moved to California. At first, it was a novelty having my father around while he was unemployed. He was only out of work a few weeks, because he took a big pay cut to make sure he had a steady income again.
The money that had been flowing so freely the year before kind of dried up. Santa was back to giving just one gift again, which was okay by me. We got up a little bit later on Christmas morning as my parents handed out our gifts. Each of us opened something a bit more practical that year, and much less extravagant. Jude got a coat. Louie, Joey and Paul got shirts and sweaters. I got an African doll my father bought at the United Nations. Chris got another GI Joe to add to his collection.
When we were all done, Tony was standing there, empty-handed.
“What’s wrong?” Jude said.
“Mom and Dad didn’t get me anything,” Tony said.
I felt like I could cry, but Tony, at 15 years old, was too old to start crying.
“Oh, wait!” my mother said, as she ran into her bedroom. She came out a few minutes later with an envelope and handed it to Tony. “Here you go.”
Tony opened the envelope and found $5 inside. “Thanks.” Tony said.
We all felt pretty bad that Tony had gotten so royally gypped. I’d like to say that there was a happy ending like in one of those Rankin and Bass cartoons, but unfortunately, Tony still ended up with just $5 when all was said and done.
I couldn’t feel too bad for him for too long, since my Aunt Nellie arrived a few hours later with my gift: a tee-shirt of Jimmy “J.J” Walker, from the TV show “Good Times.” It featured his big smiling face, and the words “DY-NO-MITE!” scrawled underneath in red letters. My aunt got me a red plaid skirt to go with it.
I took my mother aside the next day as she was folding everything and putting it in my play clothes drawer. “Mom,” I said, “I can’t wear that outfit. The girls in the neighborhood will tease me to death over it.”
“It’s perfectly good clothing!” my mother replied.
“Ma, I wear a green plaid skirt all week long with my uniform. Why would I want to wear a red plaid skirt on the weekends? And I hate, hate, HATE Jimmy J.J. Walker.”
“I’m sorry, Maria, but money is tight. You have to try it on, and if it fits, you’ll wear it,” she replied.
Well, thankfully, the skirt was too small, but the shirt fit perfectly! So began a long year filled with taunts and teases that included being called “The Good Times Blimp.”
As I got older and I stopped believing in Santa Claus, my mother’s gifts became more practical. There was a blazer one year, a sweater the next. I tried not to mention that my feet were cold, because I would almost certainly get ten pairs of socks for Christmas that year.
My mother tried, though. She saw me admiring a harlequin doll at the store one year, and I got that very doll for Christmas when I was about 14. She’d also surprise me with grown up gifts like Love’s Baby Soft perfume, a makeup kit, or a new typewriter (an IBM!). I had to share it with all of my brothers and father, but it made writing papers a million times easier than the manual.
I think of my mother all the time, but especially on Christmas Eve. That was her birthday, but she was usually so busy that she barely had time to say “thank you” if and when we remembered. Like all December babies, her birthday was eclipsed by Christmas.
She knew a thing or two about getting terrible gifts. Very often, people would combine her birthday and her Christmas present and give her one big, awful gift at once. Like the year my grandmother gave her a vacuum—a big wonderful Christmas/Birthday combo gift that my mother despised.
I remember my father taking us to a small boutique on Bell Blvd. It was called Hen’s Yen, and it featured really groovy outfits that screamed “it’s the 1970s and only Huggy Bear looks better than me.”
For her birthday, Dad let my mother buy any outfit she wanted, which was a big deal since we weren’t made of money. My mother bought a brown corduroy pantsuit that had flaring bell bottoms, a flowered vest, and a white frilly blouse to match. She also got boots, which really made her look and feel pretty wonderful.
The best Christmas gift my mom ever gave me, though, wasn’t one she handed to me on Christmas morning.
I was in the second grade and we were going to do a play called “The Littlest Christmas Tree.” It was about three Christmas trees that hope to be chosen to celebrate Christmas. The star of the show was, of course, the littlest tree. I was one of the tiniest kids in the class, and I was sure that I could get a part as one of the Christmas trees, or maybe as one of the kids who come traipsing through the Christmas tree lot. They were all speaking parts, and everyone got at least one line.
The day the parts were going to be handed out, I was sick. I stayed home with a cold but couldn’t wait to get back into school the next day (which was a first for me).
“Why do you want to go in so badly?” my mother said.
“I’m sure Mrs. McGovern saved a part for me. I want to see what it is!”
I got to school that day and approached Mrs. McGovern.
“Which part do you have for me in the Christmas play?”
Her face was a mask of confusion, until it dawned on her that I’d been absent the day before.
“Uhhhh,” was all she managed.
“Didn’t you save a part for me?” I asked. I was crestfallen.
“No, I didn’t,” she said. Good old Mrs. McGovern was about 22 years old, always confused, and she didn’t ever sugarcoat things. “But you know what? I’ll make you the fourth Christmas tree.”
“There is no fourth Christmas tree in the play,” I replied.
“Well there is now.” Mrs. McGovern replied.
Of course, there were no lines for the fourth Christmas tree, so all I had to do was stand there and look like an idiot. This play that I’d been looking forward to for weeks became torture to me.
My best friend, Perette Murphy, was the lead in the play. She was tiny and cute and made the best Littlest Christmas tree ever. I thought she was the luckiest kid there.
The day of the play, my mother pulled out a red turtleneck and red plaid skirt for me to wear (no, not the one my Aunt Nellie gave me). Then, she brushed my hair into two gleaming pony tails and kissed me on the head.
“You’ll be the best looking Christmas tree there,” she said.
“Ma,” I replied. “You don’t have to come. I know you’re busy. I don’t have any lines, so don’t bother.”
My mother just laughed. “Go have fun. At least you don’t have to worry about stage fright.”
I knew how much work my mother still had to get accomplished for Christmas. We would have the usual 15-20 people over for dinner in just a few days, the house needed to be cleaned from top to bottom, and she probably had stacks and stacks of gifts to wrap. Who needed to take time out to come see me, the biggest loser in the Christmas tree lot?
That day on stage, as the lights dimmed, I stood off to the side of the other “Christmas” trees and watched while the story unfolded. I sang when I was supposed to and watched Perette be the best littlest Christmas tree ever. When I finally looked out into the audience, I saw my mother waving at me. She was in the third or fourth row, which meant she must’ve gotten there early. She also gave me a big thumbs up.
I remember thinking, “now why on earth did she come to this? I don’t even have a speaking part,” but I felt really happy. Maybe Mrs. McGovern didn’t remember me, but my mother did.
After the play ended, my mom came back to the classroom with a big tin of Christmas cookies which she handed to Mrs. McGovern. Then, she hugged me. “I have a surprise for you,” she said. She pulled out a glittery Christmas tree pin and put it on me.
“You didn’t have to come,” I said. “You’ve got a lot to do.”
“Don’t be silly! This was the most important thing I had to do today,” my mother said, as she laughed.
A lot of Christmas mornings have come and gone since my mom gave me that Christmas tree pin. I grew up. I moved away. I had children of my own. My mother got older, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and died 14 years later. Whenever I miss her, I remember her, out in that audience. She’s waving at me, and she’s giving me the thumbs up.
Now, my parents were not the overly sentimental types. They didn’t run down to the school for every event. This was the 1970s, after all, and parents let you have your own life while they lived theirs. But when push came to shove, they were there.
I learned a lot by looking out into the audience that day and seeing my mother there. When I get caught up in the craziness of Christmas and start focusing on the toys and the presents (and panicking that I will mess up somehow), I take a deep breath, put my arms around my husband, girls and all the people I love, and remember that being with them is the most important thing I have to do on any given day.
Here’s a great Sugar cookie recipe from The Food Network: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/sugar-cookies-recipe/index.html
Here’s another great Candy Cane cookie recipe (to enjoy this week while school is out):
And of course, Christmas Tree cookies: http://www.food.com/recipe/christmas-cookies-11712
So—what was your worst Christmas present? What was your best? Got a Christmas recipe you want to share? Post your comments here, let all of the hungry lifers in on the fun.