Photo courtesy of Alice West Brook.

Memories of Christmas Past

Can it already be that time of the year again? Well, it should not come as a surprise because the yuletide TV advertisements have been hawking the latest “must-have” toys since Halloween.  
The Chicago Tribune published a list of the best toys for 2023. The second one in the “best of the best” was BITZEE (Interactive Digital Pet). The ad copy claimed “This interactive digital toy is a great way for kids to have pets if they aren’t ready for a real one.” A genius idea or a sign of the times?
I won’t disparage BITZEE, but to an Ozark boy who grew up around animals, I find it peculiar. It made me think about Aldous Husley’s 1932 dystopian novel, Brave New World, which I read for a book report at WSHS.
Things are, for sure, different today. A recent New York Post article by features reporter Taylor Knight revealed that “tech-savvy kids” are using PowerPoint presentations to make their Christmas wishes known. I suppose letters to Santa and Christmas wish lists may soon be relics of the past.
Some suggest the must-have toy craze really took off in the 1980s with the Cabbage Patch Kids hullabaloo, when parents and grandparents scoured stores and scrambled to buy one of the homely dolls. The phenomenon prompted Newsweek magazine to feature a cute little girl snuggling a Cabbage Patch doll on the cover of the December 12, 1983, edition. 
I smell marketing. But it is not new. Barbie (full name, Barbara Millicent Roberts) first appeared on store shelves sixty-four years ago, and 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold. Advertising campaigns in the 1960s provided a ton of other must-haves: Chatty Cathy (more on that blabbermouth later), Etch-A-Sketch, Easy Bake Ovens, and Hot Wheels to name a few.
I wondered if those must-have gifts from childhood were ones that are still remembered today? I queried a few friends with this question: Do you recall a special gift that was important to you as a child? The results were a treasure trove of memories.
Boys first: 
Mark James (WSHS, 1974): “Oh man, this will so label me as a nerd, but I remember being really excited about a chemistry set that my grandad Austin got me when I was a little kid. It had a card file of experiments you could do, mixing chemicals and seeing the reactions etc. I set up my ‘laboratory’ in the basement of my folks' house, which was your typical concrete unfinished dark, dank cellar-type basement. It reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.” 
My turn. I also wanted a chemistry set, but my mother quashed that notion and said, “You’re liable to blow the house up.” But two gifts I received one year that stick in my memory were a Bible and a BB gun. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. Unlike Ralphie from the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, my BB gun was a Daisy Eagle and not a Red Ryder. 
For the girls:
Sadie Burns (WSHS, 1968): My favorite Christmas gift was my Betty Crocker Cookware set. I was six-years-old and picked it out of the Sears catalogue. It had baking pans, cake mixes, cookie mixes, and all kinds of fun stuff for actually cooking with Mom. I walked around holding it and even cried because I was so excited! I loved dolls. When I was ten, I couldn’t decide if I was still playing with dolls or playing football. I got a Thumbelina doll and football cleats!” 
Here’s how Barbara Wehmer Skaggs (WSHS, 1972) answered my question: “Yes, wooden cradles for our dolls for my sister and me, and from my grandma a red velvet outfit for my Barbie doll. I have such warm memories of life in Willow Springs! Oh, I forgot to say, my dad made those cradles.”
Roberta Haas Donnell (WSHS, 1968) responded with her special memory. “My mother bought me a small rubber doll with movable limbs and beautiful eyes. What was so special is that my Mother knitted several outfits for her. She had a hat, sweater, skirt and mittens that all matched. I was so excited that Christmas morning. We lived in Kaiserslautern, Germany, at the time and I was six years old. I kept that doll and all of her clothes well into my teens.”
Dolls, however, were not appreciated by some girls. Nita Ray (WSHS, 1967) says, “I do remember getting a doll that was a disappointment because I was a tomboy.” My wife, who had four brothers and was by default a tomboy, concurs. When she received a Chatty Cathy for Christmas, she tossed it down the clothes chute, after pulling out some of its hair. When I shared this incident with Nita, she added, “Yes, we tomboys DO NOT like dolls.”
Barbara Sherrill Pigg (WSHS, 1964) recalls a gift from her across-the-street neighbor and first-grade teacher, Effie Seaman, who later taught at an American school in Japan. “For Christmas she brought me back a bright pink paper lantern, a purple paper umbrella, and a large post card that had a record grooved into it. I could play the instrumental music on my record player. I still have everything but the lantern.”
Barbara also recalls her Aunt Beth made her a date nut roll for every Christmas when she was young. “It was so delicious but super rich. She passed this year and I now wish I had her recipe. It seemed like family and friends did many special things for me at Christmas.”
Linda Pruitt White (WSHS, 1963) says, “My very meaningful gift for Christmas was Tammy my doll that I got several years for Christmas, as there was no money for a new one. My parents paid for us to go to the Willow Springs school instead of the one-room school at Clear Springs [southern Texas County]. Our dolls would disappear. Then on Christmas my Tammy was under the tree, all clean with new red lips, new dress and slip, panties, and booties. Mama did this for all three of the youngest girls. Then we would get some fruit and Christmas candy in a package with some socks.”
Linda’s response touched me, and was a poignant reminder of how small gifts given with great love are often the most memorable. The two dollars with a card from an elderly relative or a “hard candy Christmas” in the Ozarks. 
So, with the Season upon us, as Tiny Tim said in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, “God bless us every one!" 
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