Christmas tales

editorial notebook

December 25, 2008

Gift-giving that bears fruit

Christmas is truly a child's holiday. It is a day filled with wonder and joy, of love and reunion. Why should citrus play any role at all?

At least that's a question that occurred to me most every Dec. 25 through the 1960s as I slid down the stairs (yes, slid on the back of my footed pajamas as it was less likely to wake sleeping parents in the pre-dawn hours) to discover that Santa had slipped tangerines and oranges into my stocking - again.

What's the deal with all the fruit, fat man? I can recall thinking at the time. A navel orange may be something rare over there in the frozen tundra of the North Pole, but here in the U.S., we have the A&P produce section and Dollar Day specials.

To me, an orange or tangerine was the Styrofoam peanut of the day. Santa always seemed to put one or two items of genuine interest in the Christmas stocking (maybe a Hot Wheels car, a Slinky or Silly Putty) and padded the rest with fruit and nuts. Hadn't he noticed my parents had the same stuff lying around in the kitchen? This is thin gruel for a boy raised on Hasbro, Mattel and Wham-O, thin gruel indeed.

Sure, back in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a piece of fruit in the winter must have seemed like a gift from the gods, at least the ones residing in South Florida. My parents, both children of the Great Depression, probably thought a tangerine was not something to be taken lightly either. I, selfish middle-class baby boomer child that I was, could never muster such appreciation for any of it. When I became older - and wiser in the logistics of Christmas - I resolved to make sure my own progeny wouldn't be haunted by anything round and orange unless it was a Nerf ball.

This seemed to work out fine until two weeks ago. Visiting their grandparents in Chicago, the children baked cookies and heard stories of Christmases long, long ago. They learned about family traditions, about friends and relations no longer with us, about the good and sometimes not-so-good times.

Dad, my youngest later confided to me, Grandma says she used to get oranges and tangerines in her stocking. Wouldn't that be neat?

And so it came to pass that a lesson was learned. And without any assistance from the ghosts of grocers past, present or future. Today the children will have their Christmas presents, and you can be sure that at least some of them will be a-peeling.

- Peter Jensen

Cold snap, warm welcome

A stranger arrives in town.

That's said to be the essential plot in half the world's stories. It's a basic element of the Christmas narrative, and it's something just about everyone has experienced.

In December 1989, the stranger was me, and the town was New Orleans. I knew nothing about the city and little about the people I was meeting there - even though they were already almost family. My fiancee and I had gotten engaged a couple of months before, and I was finally meeting her parents.

It would have been understandable for my future in-laws to be a bit wary. The last guy their daughter brought home had apparently been something of a disaster. They knew as little about me as I did about them - and yet here I was, determined to marry their only daughter. Their 20-year-old daughter, who was still a college student.

Moreover, what they did know about me might not have inspired confidence. A year after graduation, I was not exactly the picture of ambition - unless working at a hippie retreat center for $300 a month and living in an unheated cabin in the woods of southern Michigan is your idea of a fast track to career success. Plus, I needed a haircut.

Such were my thoughts as I entered the house. Five minutes later, I found myself draping strands of real lead tinsel (did they still make that stuff?) and placing real, lighted candles on what was, apart from Rockefeller Center, probably the largest Christmas tree I had ever seen, with electric trains and a full Christmas village taking up half the living room floor.

The next few days were overwhelming - and exhilarating. I didn't celebrate Christmas growing up, so nothing in my experience prepared me for the parties, the church services, the parcels piled so high, they would not have been out of place at a Kwakiutl Indian potlatch. It was very strange, very foreign - and somehow, all perfectly normal. I should have felt wildly out of place. Instead, I felt totally included. When a freakish ice storm struck, bursting the water pipes, I laughed along with everyone else about eating Christmas dinner on paper plates. Welcome to the family, they said without saying it. You belong here.

I left after a week, a stranger no more.

- Michael Cross-Barnet

Ghosts of Christmas with the pack

When I think about Christmas, I remember our dogs.

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