Two days to Christmas.
All we have to deal with now is the feeling that there's some one thing more we ought to do - or get undone.
Because nothing is worse than expectation.That must be why so many people fill the time between now and Christmas with anxiety and last-minutes shopping, worry and liquid cheer. Or trying to get in the mood by reading stories about the True Meaning of Christmas - which never work because they all seem so false.
So here are two stories that ought to work - because they're so real I can date them. 1942, OR MAYBE 1943.
I don't remember exactly some hard year of the war. We kept playing games like "Bataan," where all the good guys died in the end. Lots of patriotic self-sacrific, but it was odd - celebrating a defeat. I think we realized that slowly. The same way we realized it was going to be a Christmas Without Toys. When we went to see Santa all the stuff was made out of paper or cardboard. Our anxious parents kept telling us things like, Santa might have trouble getting through enemy lines; or, the elves had switched over to war work and were making real guns now.
The closer Christmas came the more it seemed to be true. There were no hooks for the Christmas balls: We had to use loops to string. No new Christmas lights; and if one light burned out on those old-time strings then the whole string - sometimes the whole tree - went out. There were new Christmas balls. We had five boys in my family and had to buy two or three new boxes just to keep up with breakage. But they weren't glass. They were plastic, that 1940s plastic - translucent, milky, cloudy things. I don't know why they couldn't color them - maybe it really was like my father said, they needed the paint to put downed Nazi planes on the side of our airplanes. I remember they had cardboard tops instead of metal, and a kind of white snowy stuff glued on them for decoration - and they looked like scummy soap bubbles in dirty dishwater. Worst of all was the tinsel. No good old lead tinsel you could lay across the tracks of the electric trains to make sparks and short out the train. It was thin, shineless, papery stuff that didn't even hang straight down, only wobbled in the air.
My parents had both had enough of the Depression themselves to make Christmas and Christmas trees very important. We couldn't even get a decent tree, I remember, My father and I went out Christmas Eve and walked around and around the lots, looking at scrawny little trees and scrawny tall trees - all ugly, all expensive.
This is serious I thought. Dying for your country on Bataan is merely glorious fiction. A Christmas without toys or decorations or a tree . . . is like losing the war.
My father pulls out two extraordinarily scrawny trees and starts haggling with the guy about them. They guy keeps trying to make this small sale so he can go back to selling more expensive scrawny trees. But my father can't make up his mind. He asks me what I think.I'm stunned. My father has always had to have a perfect tree, and always had to pick it out himself after lots of very private soul-searching. I say I like one. He says he likes the other. I change my mind. He changes his mind. Finally the guy says take them both for the price of one.
"Wait'll you see this tree," says my father, carrying them home. "Which one?" I ask. "Both," he says - and he tapes the two trunks together with friction tape, because he has somehow figured out that this branch will fit this way, and that one that way . . . It makes one big, bushy, spectacular tree. Even with the scumball decorations and the imitation tinsel and the dark lights that we put on anyway, it's the envy of everybody who stops in for a look. Grownups are amazed; kids are awestuck. It's like Guadalcanal - a turning point in the war.
Next day we come down to a room full of toys. One is cardboard - a kid-size toy store that you could walk into and punch somebody without being seen, a wonderful gift for the oldest in a family of boys. The rest is real toys - old toys my father has been buying up from people who worked in the steel factory with him. A five-foot-long sled with metal footbraces on the side - so you could sit seven or eight kids on it and all go downhill like a bobsled (two or three braces missing, and the paint crazed with age, but what matter? Who ever saw a sled like this one?). A metal building set - like an early erector - so you could make your own skycrapers with ornate cornices, like the Flatiron Building. A complete set of the Books of Knowledge from 1919 - full of stories about the Great War and scientific predictions about the future when there'll be giant flying machines with flapping wings, and more fairy stories than I ever saw. A box full of the remains of three or four sets of Lincoln Logs (no little corner braces, but lots of extra-longs and roof pieces). A set of molds so you could make your own soldiers out of lead you melted in a crucible. No lead, of course; but my father got us bars of Babbit from the factory, marvelous stuff that melts quick, molds fast, and makes soldiers so soft you can bend them into strange dying shapes with your fingers. One brother gets a big old train engine with a wooden seat on the top of the cabin, so he can sit and wlak it around the room. Another gets a car he can sit in - freshly painted with the only paint my father could get, flat silver. I get an old cannon, real iron, that shoots a cork clear across the room (and a lecture about never aiming it at anybody especially the babies). And we get a chemistry set in a stell box, with little wood cyclinders full of real chemicals. Not all of them are labeled, and the directions are long gone - but we open to one of the Book of Knowledge science projects ("Buy three pennyworth of Nitre and a few ounces Hydrochlorate of Lime from the apothecary . . .") and do the best we can, substituting here and there, mixing everything in a big jellyjar glass. My brother Joe is fascinated. The third brother, who always wants to hang out with the two big ones.
"What's in the glass?" he says. We decide to teach him a lesson. "Have a taste," I say. He drinks the whole thing. Bob, the second-oldest, does just what I would've done - runs to my mother and shouts, "Jimmy made Joe drink a whole big glass of chemicals!" My mother screams.
"It wasn't so big," I say, crying. "It was only little." "It was real big - it was all the chemicals," says Bob, crying. "Tasted good," said Joe.
My father has the doctor on the phone. Useless to call for a cab - there aren't any during gas rationing. Useless to wait for a trolley - there aren't any on Christmas day. The doctor - in the 1940s - comes right over.He tries to ask my brother and me what we've put in the glass. We are by this time hysterical and unable to remember.He keeps trying to figure out what the stuff is, in the little cyclinders, tasting, shrugging . . . Finally he says the chemicals are so old they probably have deteriorated, and gives Joe a big glass of soapy water. My brother throws up a lot of particolored sutff and goes happily back to driving his silver car around the living room. The chemistry set disappears until we are "old enough to play with it right," and we are supposed to be a little penitent, but that wears off as we star shooting cannon at toy soldiers. It lays [WORD ILLEGIBLE] waste. By the end of the day, because we'd been so good (I only hit Joe once with cork from the cannon - and it was an accident, it really was), the chemistry set reappears: all the little cyclinders washed out and the chemicals replaced with salt and sugar and soap flakes and other kitchen stuff - which was just as much fun, except you couldn't get Joe to drink any.
So ever after, when we remembered great Christmases, we alway remembered as best of all The Christmas WIthout Toys. And in all our games the good guys lived - and won the war. 1953.
A storefront settlement house in Harlem. Two big windows, a glass door in the middle, a long narrow room with walls painted Coldwater Flat Tan - dismally and relentlessly clean. A bunch of dark folding chairs piled against one wall. A table with cookies and a punchbowl. A string of plastic holly, a couple of wreaths, a string of lights.
The Newman Club of Columbia University is giving a Christmas party for the neighborhood kids. Newman Clubs are campus Catholic organizations - but Columbia's is different. One of our adviser-priests was forced to resigned after writing an article praising psychoanalysis (and attacking Bishop Sheen). Another has had some kind of trouble with Joe McCarthy. Everybody is very liberal for those days.
We took up a collection for gifts and divided the money in half. Boys buy presents for boys, girls or girls. The boys decide on a tinkertopset: neutral and big for the money [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . One of the girls, very liberal and very nerous, puts in enough of her own money, buy $10 dolls. Very big, very gorgeous; to very(in the 50s) blonde.
The house is run by a thin, tired-looking white woman who has picked out the 50 little kids, around 7 or 8 years old. There are maybe a dozen of us white college kids. I still remember some faces: a light-skinned girl, hair in long ringlets and bows, a pretty dress, smiling and flirting and fussed over by everybody. One very black girl with hair just long enough to twist into two kinky pigtails, sullen and untouchable. One loud eager little boy who wants to be grownup, helping to hand out cookies and cups of punch. The tired woman keeps smiling and insiting: kids must not run, the kids who have begun to press against the storefront windows must be ignored, the punchglass must be empty before you ask for more, everyone must say please and thank you.
We try teaching them games - but it turns out we don't know any games. The tired woman suggests they teach us one of their games: "O Johnny I am tired."
We stand in a circle holding hands and the eager little boy starts weaving in and out under our arms! Everybody sings:
Bluebird Bluebird in my window
Bluebird Bluebird in my window
Oh Johnny I am tie yerd
Find a little girl
Tap her on the shoulder
Find a little girl
tap her on the shoulder
Oh Johnny I am tie yerd
When you got tapped you joined the line, hands on the hips of the one who tapped you. I haven't got the words exactly right - there was something about the one you love the best, but the object of the game was to get closer and closer and closer to everybody else. Quite an event for the repressed Catholics in the crowd, I remember thinking, my repressed Catholic hands on the hips of the generous girl - whom I'd never thought about that way. Everybody else must have thought the same thing, because we played that game until it wastime to give our presents - and everybody, even the tired woman, seemed relaxed and happy.
Then it turned out that somebody had let in some of the outside kids - and they all had to be put out because there were no presents for them. The tired woman, forcibly, sensibly, mercilessly, puts them out. They are all crying. New kids try to force their ways in. She stops that. More crying. We finally see tha there are fifty or a hundred kids outside, poor and dressed poor, standing in the cold, watching us eat cookies and drink punch. Some of us want to at least pass them our cookies - since we've lost our appetites for them.
"For heaven's sake," says the tired woman, "Get away from the door and don't look at them. All you'll do is start them fighting with each other. Is that what you want?" We don't know what we want. We want to take away some of the misery we seem to be surrounded with. And everything we do seems to add to it. The tired woman locks the door and pockets the key.
The boys are unhappy with their presents. The eager boy says he wants a doll. They're for girls, he's told; you don't want to be a girl. "I am a girl," he says, suddenly crying. "I am. I am."
The girl with the ringlets is triumphantly thanking everyone for "a very nice party, sir." Or ma'am. The sullen black girl says she doesn't want the doll. The girl who bought the dolls is trying to talk to her.
"But look, what's your name? You won't even talk? Please? What's her name somebody?"
Annie," says a tired woman.
"Well, Annie, look how beautiful this doll is. Look at her beautiful dress . . . Just feel it. You won't even touch it? Please? She loves you . . ."
"Don't want nothing," says Annie and walks to the door. The tired woman sighs and lets her out, she pushes through the crowd and runs away.
"All right, who wants more cookies to take home?" says the tired woman, with a bright professional voice, shooing them all away, and in the same voice tells us how much fun we've brought to the children, shooing us away, too.