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Christmas 1960

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas 1960

I grew up in a farming community in what was then a fairly rural area of Maryland. I don't remember that any of the kids I went to school with were from 'well-off' families. Oh, I suppose some of the farms were bigger and more upscale than others (we had a relatively small one ourselves), but most of the people were pretty much in the same economic group: each family had one car, we went to town once a week, our household goods and farm equipment (and the few 'extras') were bought courtesy of Sears & Roebuck or Montgomery Wards through the catalogs. And just as nobody seemed really wealthy, nobody seemed really poor, either.

I went to a small country school, with just six classrooms (one for each grade) and a multi-purpose cafeteria / auditorium / gym. My third-grade class was packed like sardines, since new housing had seen more people moving into the area. Consequently, there were almost forty kids in our room.

Around the first week of December each class would decorate a large box, with a slot in the top, to use as a 'mailbox.' We would 'send' homemade Christmas cards to each other. We also drew names - I don't remember calling it 'Secret Santa' but I suppose that's as good a description as any. You'd go up to the teacher's desk, one by one, and pull a slip of paper out of a box or bowl, then show it to the teacher, so she'd know whose name you had. (None of this trading slips business!)

The last day of school before break we would have a party. Parents would send in treats, like cupcakes or home-baked cookies. The teacher would distribute the 'mail,' passing around the cards that had been posted in our Christmas mailbox. Then the most exciting part of all: handing out the presents.

I couldn't tell you whose name I had that year. My mother probably helped me pick out something from Murphy's or Woolworth's. I know they distributed the parcels and told us we had to wait until they had all been given out before any of us opened them. Oh, the anticipation! Picking them up and shaking them and maybe, just maybe, you could see a bit of it.

The signal to begin: the tearing off of wrappings with a flurry of ribbon and paper. Around me there were boxes of 64 Crayolas and small Colorforms sets and Magic Slates, all the fun things that are so neat when you're a child.

My gift? I remember it well - it was a checkers set (draughts, in English style). A small gameboard that folded in half, with twelve red wooden checkers and twelve black wooden ones. We had all gone checkers-mad that year and it was perfect. I finally had checkers of my own, because I didn't have one at home and the two our classroom owned were always in use. No more waiting to play!

Who gave it to me? Now, that was the funny part. My name was on the tag, but no 'From' was written on it.

One by one we stood up in front of the class, to display our gift and announce who it was from and publicly thank them.

I took my turn and said 'I got a checkers game - but I don't know who it's from, so I don't know who to thank!' Nobody said a word, and some of the kids kind of looked around at one another, to see if someone would shyly announce 'Me, I'm the one who drew your name.' But no one said anything. The teacher must have known who gave it to me, but she didn't speak out, and finally she said 'Well, you'll have to ask around and find out who to thank, won't you?'

If I had been a little older, a little quicker in thought, it might have dawned on me to track each classmate's gift-giver and by process of elimination figure out who it was. But it was a big class, and many had already been shown, and I didn't come up with the idea. The friends sitting nearest me and I puzzled over the tag, trying to figure out the handwriting, but it had probably been written by an adult, so that was no help. I didn't think to approach the teacher.

Why didn't the child who gave me the gift want to acknowledge it? No, I don't think it was because s/he hadn't wanted to give 'me' a present; I don't think the recipient's identity ever came into it. In later years, I realized the likely explanation is - they were ashamed.

The board wasn't torn or damaged, but it had obviously been well-used. Most of the checkers didn't match. They were different sizes, and a couple of them looked as though they were wooden disks that had been painted to fit in with the other red or black checkers. It wasn't in a box: the checkers were in a little box, but the board itself - the game itself - wasn't boxed.

The small box containing the checkers had been placed on the folded board, then the whole wrapped in Christmas paper. I don't remember for sure - it has been fifty years, after all, and some details have been lost in the excitement and delight of the moment - but I think the paper might have been reused. I couldn't even say if there had been any ribbon (and at that time, I had never seen pre-made or 'store-bought' bows), but I remember thinking whichever classmate gave me the gift had also wrapped it him- or herself.

Keep in mind, though, that at eight, I didn't see second-hand checkers - I saw a checkers set of MY.VERY.OWN!

In my grade there were three or four kids who sort of came and went: their families were tenant farmers, and from one year to the next, one season to the next, they might move two or three times from one farm to another. Usually they were in our same school district, but occasionally they would end up going to a different elementary. And although nobody in our area was 'poor' in the sense of homeless or living on charity, I suppose these families had the least income. They were what we would call 'cash poor.' Self-sustaining people, like us making their own clothes and home-canning what they grew, but maybe having to use more spit and baling wire than the rest of us to keep things together.

Someone in my class drew my name and didn't have enough money - their family didn't have enough money - to spend on a store-bought present, even one from the five-and-ten. I am pretty sure I know who drew my name - we'll call him 'Jimmy' - and when I look back I find it likely he gave me his own checkers set.

No, I hadn't seen it at school - he hadn't brought it in to use - but he was pretty darn good at checkers and I figure he had more practice at it than just in recesses. He was the youngest of several kids, and maybe he came up with enough pieces (even then, wooden ones would have been somewhat outdated compared to plastic) to fill out a set of twenty-four, with a board that had come out of a gameset to which the box had long since been lost.

It was important to him to belong, to not have to admit that his family couldn't afford a present, to not have to miss the party or come up short. And though I'm sure our teacher would have come to the rescue if she'd been asked, it would have felt like the depths of humiliation to admit being unable to provide at least a small gift.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this story? I don't know. I think of it at some point every year around Christmas. I still have a couple of the little wooden checkers, though the rest have gotten lost over the years and the gameboard long since fell to pieces. I never think of that present without all over again feeling the thrill of having my very own checkers - there never has been a sense of disappointment, or inferiority, no feeling that I hadn't gotten as nice a gift as the others or that I was somehow short-changed.

Maybe Jimmy - or whoever drew my name - gave the best present he could. If I feel bad about anything, it's that he might not, must not, have thought it was good enough to put his name on the tag. I told him then, in front of the whole class, how really pleased I was to have my own set of checkers. I'll say it again:

Whoever gave me a checkers game at Mechanicsville Elementary for Christmas, 1960 - thank you. It has remained one of the best memories of over fifty Christmases. Of all the gifts I have been given at school parties and thru 'Secret Santas' and drawing names, it is one of the few I remember well, and with genuine fondness.

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I love this! And it's made me think of playing checkers with my grandma when I was a little girl-what precious memories!

    Happy New Year...wishing you every happiness for the coming year! xoxo
    3718 days ago
    Tears came to my eyes as I read this. It's a classic tale of the gift of the magi, brought to life in your classroom, all those years ago. What a blessing that you shared it!

    3718 days ago

    Comment edited on: 12/31/2010 1:32:49 PM
  • no profile photo CD8752472
    Thanks for sharing this story. It reminded me so much of the widow who gave everything and you were such a wise kid. to know the value, even at such a young age!
    3722 days ago
  • 55WALKER
    What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it with us and giving us something meaningful to think about.
    3722 days ago
  • DR1939
    Beautiful story.
    3723 days ago
    What a touching story. It's a wonderful tribute to the selflessness of a young child. Thank you for sharing the memory.
    3723 days ago
    Wow, what a lovely story. With such wonderful lessons.

    Thanks for sharing.

    3725 days ago
  • REJ7777
    That's a very touching story! Your conclusion as to the giver seems highly likely. That checker board must have been one of "Jimmy's" treasures. I'm so glad you were able to appreciate part of it's value, even at such a young age.

    The story made me think of what Jesus said about the widow's gift: "Then Jesus sat down opposite the Temple almsbox and watched the people putting their money into it. A great many rich people put in large sums. Then a poor widow came up and dropped in two little coins, worth together about a farthing. Jesus called his disciples to his side and said to them, "Believe me, this poor widow has put in more than all the others. For they have all put in what they can easily afford, but she in her poverty who needs so much, has given away everything, her whole living!""

    emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon
    3725 days ago
    I loved this Christmas story...thanks for sharing it. Having lived through the 60's, I could relate to this experience (and, Colorforms... haven't thought about them in years but, I loved them as a child).

    God bless Jimmy (or whomever) for giving what they could and giving from the heart. The gift and the experience remains in your memory...even 50 years later. That was quite a gift.

    Merry Christmas, Kasey! emoticon
    3725 days ago
    This was a wonderful Christmas story and it brought tears to my eyes when I read it! Thanks for sharing it with us! Thanks for being who you are.... the person that seen the love and caring that went into it! This truly is the what the season is all about. I hope you don't mind me reading it to friends! emoticon emoticon emoticon
    3725 days ago
    Nice story Kasey!!!--- I guess everyone remembers some special gift--For me, it was a doll , handmade--- I called her Suzy and I had her for years!- I enjoyed yer blog- emoticon
    3726 days ago
    What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing it!


    3726 days ago
    Bless you for realizing the sensitivity of the time and helping to ease his feelings. Thanks for sharing the story. It was great!
    3726 days ago
    How wonderful - thanks for sharing. I'll bet he felt really good when he saw how happy you were...thanks for sharing!
    Merry Christmas!
    3726 days ago
    What a wonderful Christmas gift - and a great reminder that it is what's in our hearts, the love that accompanies the gift or the card, that is what counts when all is said and done - it's not the size or the cost of the gift, it's the fact that the person cared enough to give that gift.

    I will never again see a set of checkers/draughts, without remembering your story, and I hope somehow, by some miracle, that Jimmy gets to hear of your blog, and learn how much his gift meant to you.

    You truly did discover the meaning of gift giving when you received that gift, didn't you?

    3726 days ago
    What a great story and great telling. And what a great memory to have. That poor boy thought he gave a substandard gift and really it was such a good gift you remember it to this day.

    Thanks for sharing the story. Have a great holiday!!!
    3726 days ago
    I will think of your friend Jimmy and the checkers whenever I see a set of checkers around Christmas time.
    emoticon Wouldn't it be wonderful if somehow--thru the 'magic' of SparkWorld he could learn how much the Gift meant to you?
    3726 days ago
    I am from the same era and this story really brought back memories. The one I will never forget happened when I was in the 6th grade.

    Everyone in class was opening their gifts and girls were getting things like perfume, bubble bath, hair accessories, and other 'girly' items. When I opened mine, everyone started laughing and making fun because I had gotten a toy xylophone, such as a toddler would play with.

    At that moment I looked over at the boy who had given it to me (his family was very poor) and he looked SO hurt. I immediately began acting like I was totally thrilled over receiving the toy because I couldn't stand the look on his face. Then of course, I became the focus of the laughter because I was so 'silly and juvenile' for loving a baby toy. I was humiliated too, but I like to think the boy who gave me the gift didn't feel quite as bad over giving it to me.

    Thank you for sharing this story! Have a blessed Christmas.
    3726 days ago

    Comment edited on: 12/23/2010 3:16:16 PM
    This brought tears to my eyes

    Love Kerrie
    3726 days ago
    Wonderful story!! I do ache for the kids who cannot afford to "share" in gift exchanges. My parents were educated, and were teachers, but they had many children and could afford very little. I was often humiliated for this reason or that when it came to buying anything at all or wearing proper clothes. I wish kids would be required to create their own gifts to give, and the teachers could provide ideas. A child could make cards or a poem, or a picture frame, or something out of clay that the teacher can bake to harden. The child has no ability to earn money at a young age, and shouldn't be expected to produce a store-bought gift.

    I'm so glad you honored your gift with genuine joy at receiving it!
    3726 days ago
    Kasey what a beautiful story you have shared with us. Thank you so very much. I have a feeling it is a story I will remember as well. Merry Merry Christmas.
    3726 days ago
    Again, an amazing story and how appropriate at Christmas time to share this---we now take so many things for granted---gifts from the heart are soooo much more precious. I hope that person actually hears of this story and has a warm feeling in their heart afterwards. Merry Christmas!
    3726 days ago
    God bless 'Jimmy' as he gave the best gift of all,it is truly wonderful to give your own things when you have nothing else to give, truly unselfish emoticon
    3726 days ago
    What a nice story! DId we grow up together and attend the same school? I went to Calvert Elem near Elkton, Md and lived at a crossroads called Blue Ball. We went to Rising Sun HS from there but I moved to Delaware prior to that. You brought my own memories back. In fourth grade, we had drawn names and I was so excited that day about what present would I get. There was a girl who sat in front of me whose family was poor. Can't remember her name but my best friend also befriended her. Her gift was on her desk wrapped and I picked it up to remind her to take it up front for the tree. She smiled at me and I knew instantly that I was the recipient of the gift and that it was a paint box with brush and watercolor paints. I was all at once dissapointed and my excitement squashed. I already knew what it was and I already had one and it only cost 49 cents or something really inexpensive. And when I opened it I was going to have to be excited. Oh, well. I was right. I have this uncany ability to figure things out just by glances or smiles or winks or whatever. Merry Christmas!
    3726 days ago
  • SROUS1340
    That's a wonderful story Kasey, gifts from the heart remain my favorite presents.
    3726 days ago
  • no profile photo CD6484093
    What a beautiful Christmas story, Kasey -- thanks for sharing it! And, being of the same age, I can relate to the school Christmas traditions. I remember in second grade that Mike R. gave me a canister of pick up sticks. Can't remember any other year's gift, but I remember that one! Thanks for dredging up an old memory for me!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours. After today I'll be away from SP until Monday or Tuesday. 'Til then, take care and God bless!
    3726 days ago
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