Saturday, December 8, 2012


 “Little cars that contained a flywheel in the center. You fed in what looks like today's zip cord, then you yanked it out hard and turned the car loose. They were pretty fast; mine usually zoomed under the sofa or some other inconvenient spot.”-quote from a website about vintage toys, referring to the SST racers

"Marvel the Mustang, he's almost for real, saddle him up, with spurs on your heels. No winding! No Batteries! Marvel the Mustang, we love you.” –yes, real lyrics from the commercial!

            As a child, I think the one think even better than Christmas…was looking forward to Christmas. Perhaps because we were not children who were handed toys every time we turned around, the anticipation of receiving all the toys one could dream of was incredibly delightful. In reality, we probably received five or six toys apiece, with a couple of particularly prosperous years being the exceptions, but it always seemed like a glorious abundance. Having had our family gift exchange the night before, where we opened things like socks and underwear and sweaters and always several books (we were appropriately grateful for these things, I might add), we would dive into bed, shivering with excitement. In the morning, there would be “Santa toys” under the tree, unwrapped, ready to be played with, and stockings filled with small trinkets and pencils and crayons and always a giant chocolate Santa and an even more giant candy cane. While Mom and Dad slumbered, having been up until four A.M. assembling bikes and dollhouses and such, we played and played. When they at last came down to make breakfast, they would sit for awhile and just watch us, and I never really understood the exchange of smiles and the way they almost seemed to be crying-until my own kids came. Now I get it.

            You see, it’s not about the toys themselves. Toys get broken and lost eventually, and even those dearly cherished and carefully kept ultimately wear out. It’s not the toys- it’s the love. It’s knowing that you were able to fulfill some small, yet important wish, some little dream that your child had stored in her heart and mind and was almost afraid to utter for fear it might never come true. When I was little, my brother and I would sprawl out on the floor in front of the fireplace, heads close together, and pore over The Wish Book. Remember those? They were the Christmas catalogs sent in the mail by JC Penney and Sears, and the first section was very boring because it was all clothes, but then you got to the toy part and wow! A feast for the eyes and imagination was there in living color on those glossy pages, and you could begin hoping. We were allowed to make a list but I realize now that most of what we wrote down was disregarded, our parents focusing on the two or three things we mentioned most often and then throwing in a few surprises they knew we’d like.

            For those who might ask if the real meaning of Christmas ever got lost in all of this, the answer is a resounding no. We fully understood that we were commemorating the birth of Christ, and that the gifts we gave each other were only tokens that could never surpass the real Gift. I’m not sure if I ever really believed in Santa, but I pretended I did for a long time, just because it was fun. And then I came to understand that the spirit of Saint Nicholas is a spirit of giving , that this saint who loved children really got it, and that being Santa Claus for other people is a great source of joy. Once I had children of my own, this became even more clear and real to me.

            Two of the Christmas toys I remember best are one I wasn’t expecting and one that I obsessed over for months. The unexpected one was my SST racer, actually purchased as an afterthought by my mother who realized that it was too cool to pass up, and that if my brother got one and I didn’t, I would be sad. My brother was the closest sibling to me in age and we played cars and other boy things together a lot, which was fine with me because I wasn’t especially girly. My SST racer was red and my brother’s was blue, and in my mind their awesomeness has never faded. We had a recreation room that had once been a basement, and we would race our cars in there on rainy days and they would get stuck under the furniture. On nice days we would race them down the sloping driveway, amazed at their lightning speed. Of course they were really kind of junky, but we didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if we had.

            Then there was Marvel the Mustang. I think I was three that Christmas, or maybe four. In any case, he rode from wherever we were living at the time, either New Jersey or Indiana, all the way to Jacksonville, Florida where we were spending Christmas with our grandparents. I did not know that my noble steed was hidden under the tarp up there on top of the car. I had wanted him for so long, months and months, that I had begun to doubt I would actually get him. When I did, along with a red cowboy hat, boots, and a holster with capguns, I was stunned. I rode him all Christmas Day, my imagination taking me to a thousand places. I rode him for years afterward, even after I got real ponies and even after I got way too old and too big. Marvel traveled with us when we moved from Indiana to Texas, from Texas to Alabama, from our house in Spanish Fort to a storage building while we spent a year in a condo and finally to the house on Calverdale Circle, where he was ultimately lost in the fire. He was ridden by nieces and nephews and neighborhood kids and then set aside but never given up completely until that fateful day. It wasn’t the toy, you know. It was the memories he represented-and those can never be lost.Never.

            I remember that amid the festivities, amid the cooking baking and choir practices and singing carols around the piano and the chaos of opening gifts, there were moments of quietness where I would gaze at the star, the really ugly multicolored light-up star on top of our haphazardly decorated tree, with a sense of wonder. I would think of the first Christmas and the Baby in the manger, with all of the animals gathered around (our Nativity scene had a bunny and a fawn added by me-I figured all of Creation must have come to see Him), and I would think of how it must have been for Him to give up all His glory and come down and live like one of us, going to school and work and eating meatloaf, just so he could know what it was like to be us, to feel what we felt-and then to die for us, knowing how terrible human beings could be.

            These deep and profound thoughts didn’t come to me all at once, but over time, as Christmas after Christmas was celebrated with exceeding great joy and Daddy reading A Christmas Carol  in his best Scrooge voice and reading Luke 2 while snow fell outside, or, after we moved down South, maybe some rain was pouring down or maybe it was eighty degrees, but the magic never stopped. I thought it would, after Dad’s great heart ceased to beat and his earthly voice was stilled. I have only a vague memory of that first Christmas without him, when all I could do was wish with all my heart that he could be there, and know for certain that this wish could never be. But then, as the years passed and Christmas came just the same, I realized that he was still there, enjoying it with us. And after my kids came and I stayed up until midnight putting together two wagons and a Barbie dollhouse, I came to understand that he lives, not only just beyond that veil between us and eternity, but in me and in my children. I married a man much like my father, so much so that when he refers to “Little Fairy on the Prairie” just to bug me, or reads passages from Carol in a gruff and scary voice, I experience an odd sensation that is probably as close to time travel as one can get.

            Last year when we gave Raina her horse, something that she never thought would actually happen, I understood why my parents looked like they were almost crying on those noisy, chaotic, beautiful Christmas mornings. There is an arriving full circle when you see your kids all wrapped up in wishes fulfilled. For my kids, of course, the first wish fulfilled was us-their “real, true, forever family”. Everything after that was pretty much gravy. I felt the same. That first year, that first crazy Christmas that the big yellow house on the hill was finally full, my husband asked me what I wanted. I couldn’t think of a thing, and have no clue what I actually ended up getting. I just recall squeals and shouts and two little girls and a medium-sized boy in pajamas, with remnants of chocolate Santas on their faces, celebrating Christmas, actual Christmas, for the first time in their lives. To this day they wonder: how did we get that giant Barbie house into the bedroom without them seeing? Magic, my children. Christmas magic.

            It’s not the toys, you know.


Did my sister get her baby doll? Did my brother get his bike?
Did I get that red wagon the kind that makes you fly?
Oh I hope there'll be peace on earth
I know there's good will toward men
On account of that Baby born in Bethlehem

Mom and Daddy stayed up too late last night
Oh I guess they got carried away in the Christmas candlelight
And you gotta get up ~ you gotta get up ~ you gotta get up
It's Christmas morning! –Rich Mullins









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