never was much for Christmas.
When I was five, I was told Santa used the chimney to deliver presents.
When I pointed out we didn't have a chimney, my mom, always a quick
thinker, said Santa just used the front door. When I then pointed
our door had three locks and we had two German shepherds, she just
shrugged and said, "he's got a key."
That's when I knew Santa wasn't real because, in our house in the
inner city of Cleveland, you didn't give anybody keys to
your house, especially a stranger who was going to come in at night
and mess with stuff. I left him cookies and milk that year anyway.
When I found them the next morning, I knew that "Santa"
hadn't been able to get past the two deadbolts and lock. He'd passed
me by, but somehow still got the presents under the tree. I knew
I was being tricked.
When I was nine, we lived in a big, rambling old house in West
Virginia with a fireplace, a wood-burning kitchen stove, a barn
and an outhouse out back, right at the edge of a hill that dropped
steeply down to a creek. I loved it, except at night when it would
get dark, that country-dark where there are no street or city lights
and you can't see your hand in front of your face.
For our only Christmas there we had almost no money and all I could
think of to give my mom was a flashlight, because she complained
about going to the outhouse at night. So, I went to Woolworth's
in Spencer and got a big, orange flashlight and a painted plaster
picture of Jesus that cost 50 cents, spending all but 25 cents of
my four-dollar budget.
Mom told me she loved the flashlight and I was so excited about
it that I made her open it on Christmas Eve. Soon I had to visit
the outhouse and, of course, wanted to use the new flashlight. I
pointed it all over as I walked the hundred feet or so, watching
out for the ghosts that were known to inhabit the area, particularly
I left the light on while I went about my business. As I was pulling
up my pants, I saw the light suddenly flip toward the ceiling, then
disappear. Looking down, I saw a glow coming from the one place
in an outhouse you don't want to see a glow coming from.
Sure enough, I'd knocked it in. Way in.
I don't know what I was more afraid of: having to walk back to
the house in the pitch black, or having to tell mom that her new
orange flashlight was going to be illuminating our two-seater from
the inside for a while. As I jogged back to the house I reminded
myself at least she still had the painted plaster Jesus.
I've thought about that flashlight many times over the years. But
mostly, I remember what it was like to have almost nothing at all
and not feel poor. I made toys out of what I found, climbed trees,
fought wars, found wild strawberries and learned about the facts
of life from a patient girl in a hayloft. Christmas was not a big
deal, because I didn't expect much; the tree and decorations were
pretty amazing by themselves.
I heard the other day the average kid these days has about 1,000
toys, if you count up all the parts. I think when I was nine I had
three a pocketknife, a Lincoln Log set and a BB gun that
never really worked. It always seemed best to be able to carry all
your toys so you could use them wherever you were. Having too many
meant you had to leave some behind and it was too hard to choose
what to take. You had to be able to take them all.
The past few years, as I go through this strange mid-life crisis
of simplifying life and getting rid of all the things I've accumulated
the toys, the excess clothes, computer junk, gadgets, unused
furniture, unread books, old magazines I realize that all
I really want is a pocketknife. And my Lincoln Log set. And in place
of the BB gun maybe, well ... my guitar. This other stuff never
meant much anyway and only distracted me from what I needed to be
But one final Christmas thought:
I saw a movie last week. Maybe you've heard of it "Don
Juan de Marco." The plot isn't important, or even the ending.
Don Juan, the self-styled "greatest lover in the world,"
grows tired of the questions his interviewer keeps asking, and so
sums things up for him.
There are only four questions of value in life, Don Octavio:
What is Sacred?
Of what is the Spirit made?
What is worth Living for? and
What is worth Dying for?
The answer to each is the same: only Love!
As simple as it sounds, I think he got it right.