December 22nd, 2011
Without Presents, I Learned The True Meaning Of Christmas

When I was a kid, I would get all teary-eyed during Christmas as I watched those Save the Children commercials in which African children with distended bellies shared a couple of canned peas. I felt like a real turd — I had toys and these poor kids were sharing peas. I distinctly remember that these commercials starred Sally Struthers and played John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the background, which is partly why, to this day, I always get choked up when I hear that song. And at the time I didn’t realize was that I, too, was poor (though in a totally different context, of course).

One Christmas, for instance, we didn’t have a tree, so I constructed one myself. I was absolutely determined to have one, so I took two sheets of white paper, colored them green, cut them in the shape of a Christmas tree, glued them together, stuffed them with cotton, and lastly, taped a pencil to the bottom as the base. It was the most pitiful tree I have ever seen. I think I may have even thrown it away before Christmas, ashamed and defeated. In my 7 year-old mind, however, I didn’t connect not having a tree with being poor.

All I knew is that not having one made me sad. But if we didn’t have a tree, I could make one, just like when I didn’t have a doll house, I constructed one out of cardboard, complete with bookshelves and a pool. (I think these conditions highly contributed to my creativity. I also once made a hideous and unintentionally disturbing Lamb Chop puppet out of yarn and an old sock.)

But Christmas Eve, despite my guilt over starving African kids, was filled with joy. My aunt’s house was always hot and loud with laughter and screaming children. The windows would be fogged with all the body heat and warmth of the stove. The cinnamon and boiled fruit scent of the ponche permeated the air. The smell of steaming tamales filled us with anticipation. And like many Mexicans, we’d wait until midnight to open our gifts. Supposedly, Mexican Santa would stealthily leave them in the backyard and an adult would have to haul them in. (Perhaps Santa Clos had been drinking some spiked ponches and was too tipsy to enter.) Then at 12:00 am on the dot, we would tear the gifts open with reckless abandon.

Of course it was great to receive gifts as a child, but perhaps because our holidays were not filled with material excess, I don’t care much for gifts now. Some people go the opposite route. As soon as they reach financial stability, they indulge in material comforts. But I was never taught to unreasonably value objects. My parents must have done something right if I was genuinely concerned about the fate starving children at the age of six.

Many other things have changed since I was a child. My gigantic family doesn’t all get together like before. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even be welcome anymore. But I still have my immediate family, my sister-in-law, and my niece and nephew, which I am all grateful for, and none of us (except the children, of course) even care about receiving presents. We still eat tamales, drink ponche, and make the house hot with laughter.

Though I don’t care enough about having a tree, I can finally buy one if I really wanted to. My boyfriend and I actually have his old tree from when he was a child. (He had his own tree in his room, which we laugh about.) And instead of simply feeling terrible and helpless about those needy children, I donate money to a charity.

I’m not here to say that we should all put the “Christ” back in Christmas and all those stupid platitudes. I’m not even Christian. Nor is this some insipid lesson on how it’s better to give than to receive. Sometimes, it’s just helpful to reflect on your evolution as a person through the lens of cultural makers like this. And I’m not about to romanticize poverty, but at least I was able to learn from this lack of material objects like a tree and excessive presents. I’m grateful that at a very early age, I learned an integral part of who I was and who I would become.

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