A Story about Christmas
This is not a warm fuzzy Christmas story. Because it is Christmas, and because I myself enjoy happy tales on Christmas, I feel the need to warn you that this one ends in tears and fighting.
Why would I tell you such a story on Christmas? Well, on the off chance that you are trying to escape from an uncomfortable family gathering by staring into the recesses of your mobile phone, I want to be that voice today that is telling you that no matter how bad you’ve got it, someone out there has it worse. And I’m not just talking about the folks who are starving while you complain that the stuffing doesn’t taste as good this year or that there is not enough liquor on the table.
What I mean when I say that someone has it worse than you is that there might possibly be a little girl right around the corner from you who is in the process of losing all of her Christmas money to her scoundrel of a father in a poker game.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me start by telling you that we have perpetuated a myth in our family that Christmas is not about the presents. To legendary proportions my parents, my siblings and I, myself, have smugly preached to the world that we did not do gifts growing up. Instead we kept Christmas simple. And meaningful.
As with all myths, there are shards of truth to this story. The area underneath the Christmas tree was not piled with gifts on Christmas morning, and my siblings and I lived in great dread of the inevitable question from friends and other adults, “What did Santa bring you?”
It is true that Santa did not come to our house. And it is true that my parents did not run up their credit cards buying presents we could not afford. It is true that my mom or dad would tell the Christmas story on Christmas morning and we would focus on Jesus, not the presents.
But it’s not true that we did not get presents. My grandmother gave us presents. And my mom, who dreaded the holidays and felt the crushing pressure of the Myth, usually went out two days before Christmas and bought us all presents out of guilt. My brother, my sister and I would get a few little things on Christmas morning. They were not the IT present, but most years, we did get the satisfaction of tearing wrapping paper off of something.
When we got older, we would leave town for the week of Christmas and the vacation would be our present. We all loved these years best because the distraction of skiing or walking around downtown Chicago looking for a restaurant that was open on Christmas day for dinner kept us from wishing we were opening presents.
On years that were particularly tight financially, my parents would tell us that we were not getting presents and they would try to come up with a creative plan for what we would do instead. One year we all made each other gifts. One year we gave each other acts of service.
My mother loves to tell these stories when she speaks to young mothers at church about having a meaningful Christmas on a budget, but she suffers from a little thing called Selective Memory when she tells these stories. All of those plans sound better than they really are. My own kids will tell you that coupons for acts of service are all well and good until you actually try to cash one in and your brother is all, “Heck no, I’m not doing that! That coupon EXPIRED!”
Beautiful, creative handmade gifts are wonderful. They are also frequently either time-consuming or expensive. Or both. I’ve pinned thousands of handmade gift ideas to Pinterest that I will never actually make, because, let’s be honest, sometimes it is easier (and cheaper) to actually buy a gift.
I know there is nothing so lovely and heartfelt as a handmade gift, but when you are eight and your three year old brother makes you a hunk of clay in the shape of a bowl, you feel you have been ripped off. I think my mother made us homemade dresses on the year of handmade gifts. In retrospect, I do feel warm and fuzzy when I picture her up all night sewing. It is really sweet and if she had blogged her homemade dresses for my sister and me, you would have pinned them and called her a crafty, creative genius. But really, I just wanted a Cabbage Patch kid.
But handmade and hand written Christmas gifts were brilliant in comparison to the Year Of Which We Do Not Speak. There is a year that doesn’t come up in the talks about Simple Christmas, and that, my friends, is the story I am going to tell you today, the one where my parents had their very worst idea for a cheap Christmas.
Instead of exchanging physical gifts, we would give each other the gift of being together All Day Long.
They stated that each one of us would choose a game to play and starting with the youngest, we would all play the game of that child’s choosing. How my parents won us over to this plan is beyond me, but I was a sympathetic child and was always worried that we were running out of money. Even though I really wanted a Barbie Dream House, I’m pretty sure I could never have coped with the guilt of actually receiving one. It would have kept me up at night worrying about how my parents had paid for it.
So somehow, we awoke Christmas morning all ready for Christmas Game Day. My brother, Peter, who is five years younger than me, started the day by choosing Monopoly, which we all know is really called The Game That Will Never End. We would probably have finished Monopoly like we usually did, by throwing the little green houses and red hotels at each other but my Grandmother was there. She had come over bearing real presents, as in brand new items from an actual store that were wrapped professionally at the mall. So we were on our best behavior for her while my dad built his empire on the game board.
The fact that we ended Monopoly by all of us being in debt to my father should have been an omen of things still to come on Christmas Game Day, but we moved on to the next game without even thinking twice. Suckers.
My sister chose LIFE. Dad won.
I chose Hide and Seek. I really thought I was being clever because no one can win at Hide and Seek. But Daddy hid so well that none of us could find him, and we had to give up.
In keeping with her efforts to make Jesus the focus of the season, my mom chose Bible Trivia, where the “trivia is not trivial.” Of course my dad had a slightly unfair advantage in Bible Trivia, being that he is a pastor with a degree in the Bible.
My dad won every game. In fact, he had a saying when we played games with him growing up that went like this, Dad always wins. It’s not a particularly creative saying, but he was consistent
Now I ask myself why we did not remember that Dad always wins when we were presented with the idea of playing games all day for a celebration of Christmas. Why did we not picture in our minds a day of being schooled by my father in every game we owned and then protest, “NO! Surely that will not be any fun! Can we please do something else? How about we beat each other with sticks in the backyard instead?”
No, friends, we did not ask for a different Christmas plan and upon reflection, here is why I think we did not.
As properly raised-to-be-competitive children, we were positively addicted to the tantalizing idea that we might one day beat our father. The possibility of triumph over the unbeatable champion was too great a temptation to pass up. Daddy did not always have time to play games with us, so if we had him ALL DAY LONG, one of us MIGHT beat him at something. Surely the odds were with us in a gaming day of that proportion. Suckers, we were.
As the morning turned to afternoon of Christmas Game Day, we paused for Christmas dinner. We ate my Grandmother’s Rolls and Mashed Potatoes and other wonderful treats. Pies and cookies eased the pain we felt in losing so many games, and strengthened our resolve to continue playing.
After Christmas Dinner and all of the children’s games, my grandmother chose a game. My grandmother had a competitive streak in her and we played games with her whenever we slept over at her house. She introduced us to Dominoes, Rummikub and Skipbo. She also played Bridge in regular groups until two months before her death. She was a gamer for sure, so she came to our house with her box of Rummikub, which luckily for her can only take four players. My dad sat this one out and she won.
After Grandmother’s game, Mother packaged her up some leftovers and she got ready to go home. We should have begged her to stay instead of hugging her neck in goodbye, but we had no idea how ugly things were about to get, so we let her drive off into the twinkle lights of Christmas night.
Before she was out of the driveway, my dad was setting up the final game of the day.
He was shuffling the cards at the head of the game table and at each of the four seats was a shiny stack of quarters. We scrambled up to the table like flies to the honey jar, completely irreverent of the gleam in my father’s eye. We were all greedy with the idea of dragging away all the quarters from that table on Christmas night.
Now, we all knew how to play poker, as well as most other card games before we could read. My father frequently tells a story about how he was paying his way through college at the University of Texas by winning at poker until he met Jesus. Then he decided it just wasn’t an honest way to earn money anymore because Texans were too easy to beat.
That didn’t keep him from making sure we knew how to play. According to Daddy, the only thing worse than his children playing cards was his children not winning at playing cards.
When we played cards with Daddy, he had high expectations. The game we played the most often was Spades, and I have to tell you, it’s hard to say what was worse, being beat by him or being his partner. These days, I would choose the former over the latter without blinking, but as a little girl, there was something magical about winning with Daddy. He would give you a big smile and a high five and you would get to feel wonderful for a moment because he was so super proud of your brilliant ability to be a great partner on the winning team. However, that moment came at the high cost of being expected to remember every card played, and more importantly, every card that was still waiting to be played. After every hand, you would have to endure his telling you all the places where you went wrong, all the nuances of how his lead meant that you were to have played this card instead of that one. Even if I was not his partner, as his card playing child, I had to endure some of this kind of instruction. He has this infamous saying about card playing that goes like this, “If you’re going to sit there, you might as well think.”
As we got older, this saying became funny and we all used it on each other mockingly, but the fact that my dad often said it to us as small children explains why my mother was no where near the room when we were playing cards. She wanted no part of this sadistic ritual, and she would happily do a puzzle with me in the kitchen if I ever wanted to refuse to play myself.
However, Spades requires four people and my brother and sister share both my father’s competitive spirit and the uncanny ability to remember all the cards played, so somehow, even after years of abuse, they always managed to talk me into playing with them.
But this Christmas Game Day we were not playing Spades. We were playing Poker, which we had often played with chips but never with Real Shiny Quarters.
We were playing for money. And we were playing for keeps.
Before we started, in deference to my mother, he told us each that we were welcome to walk away with all our quarters right now. That we could have Ten Whole Dollars in quarters for Christmas to do with as we wished. Or we could play Poker with our quarters, and take our chances at walking away with all the money.
Of course, being the greedy little monsters that we were, we could not resist playing for all the money or the chance to finally beat our dad at a game. My mother made a point of washing her hands of the whole idea and retreated to her knitting.
And so it began.
Hand by hand, we slowly but surely lost our quarters to our dad. We listened with deflated hearts while he told us after each hand where we went wrong.
I personally had to endure the knowledge that I would never properly be able to cover either a good hand or a bad hand because my eyes always gave me away.
Miraculously, with a few quarters left, I was dealt a hand I believed could get me back in the game, a full house with queens up. I drew blood biting the inside of my cheeks trying to control my Poker face. I put in everything I had left and tried my best not to smile at my good fortune at getting such a hand at this stage in the game. I fell hook, line and sinker for the possibility that I was taking my dad for a ride when he threw his quarters in the center to meet my own.
Proudly I laid my hand out on the table for all to see my Christmas Game Day Triumph.
And then, of course, Daddy nonchalantly set his cards face up for me to see his full house. Aces up. Just enough to beat mine.
Because Dad always wins.
I completely lost it. I threw my cards and my quarters.
Then I screamed at him that he was a cheater.
A grave offense.
He demanded that I take it back. He never cheated. He only ever won a game on pure prowess and skill.
My dad quietly told me that unless I recanted, the game was over.
The game was over for me anyway, so I refused. The anger I felt towards Daddy was born out of the humiliation over losing to him all day, so I couldn’t possibly add to the degradation by apologizing to him.
Daddy raked everyone’s quarters back into a pile in front of him.
Now my brother and sister were also crying because I had ruined the game by calling Daddy a cheater. They were still holding out for the impossible, that they might beat Daddy themselves.
Somewhere in my memory I hear my mother saying, “Craig, I told you that this was a bad idea.”
While we all cried, my dad calmly said to the three of us.
“Before we began today, how much money did you each have?
“Ten dollars,” we said.
“No, before we started playing, you had none!”
Sniffles from us all.
“And how much money do you have now?”
“That’s right, so there is no reason for you to be upset, because you still have the same amount of money that you started with.”
“Then I gave you each $10 in quarters and what did I tell you that you could do with it?”
“That’s right. You could have walked away with your $10, but you chose to play the game instead.”
I’m sure we were supposed to learn some great lesson, like, Never Play Cards For Money, but at this point, my lack of a Poker face was pretty much shooting my dad with daggers. My tears had subsided and I was so mad at him I could have spit nails.
At my mother’s urging, he divided the quarters into three piles, shoved them each toward us, pushed his chair from the table and walked away.
My brother and sister started counting their quarters.
I left my quarters on the table and went to bed. I cried myself to sleep that night and I think it was not over losing just the games to Daddy. In coming unglued and ruining the final game, I had lost a part of myself.
These days, when I hear my parents perpetuating the Myth of how our family did meaningful things at Christmas instead of giving traditional gifts, I still sometimes have the urge to stand up at the back of the church and testify to the year that I went to sleep on Christmas night with the taste of metal in my mouth, a pile of quarters I could not be happy to have or to lose.