When I was little, one Christmas, I received two Megatrons as gifts. One from my parents and one from my aunt. We exchanged one of them at a KMART in Merced that now only stands in my memory. I got Optimus Prime instead; thus, allowing me to join every other boy in the world who played with a good guy in one hand and a bad guy in the other.
Another time, I was given an action figure of my favorite WWF wrestler, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. He was this bulky wax-figure whose limbs hardly moved which made it near impossible for my imagination to see him perform the various wrestling moves I watched him perform on television. Then again, I didn’t have another action figure he could grapple with or, as the famed WWF announcer Gorilla Monsoon would have said, “They’re fighting from pillar to post.” A good guy in one hand, the other empty. No Randy “Macho Man” Savage, no Jake “The Snake” Roberts, no Bad News Brown. Nobody. These action figures were expensive. I wonder how I reminded my parents that Steamboat was the guy I wanted? Maybe I went to the store with them one day and simply pointed him out. I sometimes marvel at the gifts my parents were able to get us for Christmas at all. We were not super rich or super poor; if we were a gas tank, I gather we were right above empty. Looking back, I sometimes feel ashamed at the things I asked of my parents knowing their budget was limited. Instead of an overpriced video game system one year, I was given some off-brand video game system. I can’t remember the name. It had a gun but the game was on a videocassette and at the corner of the television set I had to place this red light. As the game began, you are in the cock pit of a fighter jet. You are chasing enemy aircraft through canyons, deserts and over the ocean. As the targets lock on the enemy aircraft, your job is to shoot them down. If the light on the television turned red, it was a hit. It had a pretty cheesy score and narration. But I had something.
All I knew as a kid, or should I say, based off of what television advertising and friends at school were telling me, this system was not what every kid wanted. Though I never dared verbalize it as a child, I lived with the unrealistic expectation that I needed to have certain material possessions in order to survive. In order to be fine. Television advertising and wanting to fit in with the popular kids drilled this lesson into my psyche daily. I didn’t know I needed the popular toy or popular piece of clothing until the television and the student body told me so.
“Oh,” I would say, “I guess my shoes must only be British Knights and LA Gear. My pants have to be Silvertabs and my jacket must be a poofy NFL or NHL parka like I see the older kids at school wear.”
I know I always received more than I should have and that my parents did their best. Whether it was a Christmas in Merced or visiting with cousins in San Francisco when they lived near Mission, near Valencia or when they moved to Daly City, I always had Christmas gifts, food and family to share it with. As much as I had those things, I still always lived with the lie that it was never enough. Life was not brand names and I was quietly insistent that it should be.
Then I grew up.
Many years ago, before we had children, my wife and I told our parents and family we no longer were going to buy anybody gifts and that they should not get us any. We figured there were too many needy children and families that needed more than we did. We became principled. At least for two years. We raised money and gave to those who really needed, to those who lived in conditions lower than anything my wife or I ever experienced as children. We did away with the Christmas tree and each and every Christmas decoration out of perhaps, misguided religious zeal and certainly because of the nauseousness brought on by consumerism.
Then we had children. Very slowly some of those things came back and our principles loosened. The Christmas tree was not going to damn me to hell and gifts are not going go spoil my children outright. Nostalgia, I gather, also played a part but also the ability to bless my children. There are gifts like I had gifts under the tree. There is family like I had family. What’s to complain about? Sometimes I think I should create some sort of inventory card where my children could write down the exact descriptions of the gifts they received; this way, when they’re older and trying to remember the gifts they received, they will not be left, like me, to the whims of memory.
At the kitchen table, we teach our children to be thankful. It is a difficult mindset to grasp as a child especially if parents are not setting the example. We cannot grumble and complain and expect our children not to. At the kitchen table, we talk about being content with what is before us, to not covet and obsess over the things others have that we don’t, leading us to question our worth, leading us to selfish pity parties and depression. Of course, this is a dilemma that may only plague those of us who live in a world where excess is as obtainable to the degree we are willing to use or misuse our money or to the degree we are willing to use or misuse credit. How odd and ridiculous, to be sad for more when you have enough. And when all of that is happening, how can we see what Christmas is really all about?
In Finding Forrester, William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, tells his young friend and protege Jamal, “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.” When I remember that line, I think, what is more unexpected than a king born in an obscure manger? What is more unexpected than Emmanuel, God with us? What a most unexpected way for God to make Himself known. Scripture says, “But when the fulness of the time was come [or, when the time was right], God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Not only did Jesus come at the right time but he also gave the unexpected gift of himself for us, “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). This is the key to my heart and the key to our family. It is the most important thing to dwell upon, not only during a season that bears the name of Jesus, the greatest gift of all, but everyday.
See, when I was little I thought Christmas was first and foremost about Transformers, WWF action figures, GI Joe, scooters, clothes, video games, turkey, nacatamales and family; I thought it was about trees, Christmas programs and snow, decorations and He-Man, Cringer and Skeletor. But I realize now, it’s always been and will be about the Master of the Universe.