One of the ways that Jamie and I got to know each other was through a series of questions. Everything from silly preferences (your favorite Muppet) to aspirational goals (next country you would like to visit, where do you see yourself in five years) to deep theological issues (your greatest struggle). One of the questions that got asked early on was regarding the most memorable Christmas gift you ever received. Jamie's answer revolved around a favorite toy received. The one she waited for. My answer was similar, but it also involved a bit of a reprimand as well.
The year I received coal.
Well, not coal exactly. I received switches. A definite reminder of my place on the naughty list for how I acted through the Christmas season.
It was 1980-something, the year that the Nintendo Gameboy first came out. A personal gaming platform in glorious sepia/gray-tone that played a handful of Nintendo games, including the most addictive game ever created - Tetris. It was all that I wanted for Christmas. I wanted a Gameboy, I wanted a handful of games, and I wanted hours to play it.
I asked for it from everyone - my parents, grandparents, strangers on the street (okay maybe not this far) and of course the big man himself, Santa Claus. I didn't care about any other gift. Just the Gameboy. And I did not wear it well.
In our family, we essentially had four Christmases. Four gift opening opportunities. On Christmas Eve, we would have dinner with my dad's family and open gifts there with that side. After that dinner, we would always open gifts among the Keeler crew once we got back home and into pjs. Then Christmas morning, we would open the gifts from Santa. And Christmas lunch would be with my mom's family. Four opportunities for gifts.
At Christmas Eve dinner, I was already starting to get antsy. I tore through packages, sizing them up to determine which one might be the right size and shape to contain the precious Gameboy. I remember that I even received a Gameboy game from an aunt and uncle. Looking back on it now, this should have been a clue that all would be right with the world and the Gameboy would be coming, but my poor brain at the time did not register this. I believe I responded at the time that it wouldn't do me any good because I didn't have a Gameboy. Ugh, I cringe at that now.
One Christmas gift session down - no Gameboy.
When we got home, my parents of course had to talk to me about my behavior that evening, but sadly it still didn't register. We got in our pjs and exchanged our family gifts. Still no Gameboy. I'm sure I pouted through that evening, spoiled brat that I was acting, as I had not received what I wanted yet.
It was hard to sleep that night. The combination of excitement and want. Nerves and general Christmas rush. But eventually I fell asleep. I think I even dreamed about the Gameboy. I know - it was bad that year. After all, my best hope at this point was Santa Claus, or so I thought.
I awoke next morning with a package in my room, which was unusual. Typically Santa's gifts were all in the living room around the tree.
I started unwrapping the gift and there it was. The Gameboy box. I tore into the box trying to get the system out to start playing it then and there, and found instead a surprise. There was no Gameboy system inside.
Where the Gameboy should be lay a bundle of tiny switches, tied together neatly with a red string. That image is forever burned into my memory. Given the size, they weren't really switches, just little twigs tied together, but I knew what they represented.
I stood there a little dumbstruck for a few minutes. "Santa gave me switches?." Then it started to sink in - "oh, Santa gave me switches." I knew where I fell on the nice/naughty list.
I had to go out and show the rest of the family what Santa had left me. My parents relayed a message from Santa regarding my behavior and attitude towards receiving. And finally gave me the gift I had been waiting for, the one I expected to be in the box.
Here's the thing, I know I enjoyed the Gameboy. I can remember the handful of games I played on that device and I remember getting other family members hooked on the games, like how my mom got addicted to Tetris. But that memory pales in comparison to the one of opening the box and seeing the switches. And I know what lesson that taught me about the spirit of receiving and how it changed my attitude towards gifts and Christmas from then on.
I try to remember that as a parent, now, with a little girl in particular who is getting a little caught up in the getting part of the season. She's a little too young now to truly understand, but you better believe I'm ready to relay that same kind of lesson if need be. I've even got a little coal bag ready to replace a stocking should the need arise.
After all, it might not be the most appreciated gift at the time, but it might end up being the most memorable.