The Christmas season began for me each year when the Sears catalog arrived. It had a curious title, “The Wish Book.” First published in 1933, the Wish Book was the source document for many childhood Christmas lists. When the hefty phonebook-sized catalog arrived in the mail, my mother and I had a friendly difference of opinion. She liked to say perusing the catalog was enjoyable for her since she could look at all the things she didn’t wish to have. I thought she was crazy. Gradually I saw right through her sneaky strategy to dampen my enthusiasm for the long list of presents I hoped to see under the tree.
My young and imaginative mind combed through the pages amassing a list that would make Santa Claus proud. After all, he was in the gift-giving business, and I felt it my duty to enable him to explore the breadth and depth of his generosity. If I had received all I had in mind, it would have required a warehouse far larger than the small apartment we occupied during my childhood years.
One year I wanted one thing more than any other – a G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip. This action figure (not to be confused with a doll, of course) had all the latest features. Instead of the hard plastic molded hair, this G.I. Joe had “real” hair. It actually felt more like an early version of Velcro. Still, it was much more authentic. He also had a beard, which made him very hip for that time period. Perhaps that was the hidden inspiration for me to grow a beard, which I have had since 1977. The rest was much the same, except for his hands. G.I. Joe aficionados will remember the early models had a right hand permanently posed with a trigger finger extended to hold the official G.I. Joe rifle in just the right position. The problem was whenever G.I. Joe wasn’t holding the rifle he looked like he was pointing awkwardly, hitchhiking or thumb sucking. None of these worked very well. So when the G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip emerged on the scene it just felt right.
The day finally arrived, and when I opened the last package, the exact G.I. Joe I imagined was at last in my hands. Could anything be better than this? Everything else faded into the background. The voices of family were a distant garble. Other presents I received were appreciated, but second to this prize. I had no time for food. There was a mission for Joe, and I had to lead it.
I’m not sure what happened next. The cause of a calamity is often lost in memory. I probably got carried away. Maybe I was not doing what I was asked to do. Whatever the cause, the moment arrived when I was to be doing something else, and I was not about to leave Joe behind. My anger swelled. Others were making fun of my fascination. Finally in a fit of rage I threw my new G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip across the room. He landed badly and the worst thing happened – I broke off one of his hands. It turned out G.I. Joe lost his grip because I lost my grip.
I cried for what seemed like hours. My mother was sympathetic, but firm. There would not be another one to replace my broken soldier. I was stuck with it. My selfishness and anger had cost me more than I could endure. I tried to tell myself he was a brave hero who had been wounded in action, but that narrative was not comforting. In the end I knew I had no one to blame but myself. Some lessons are best learned the hard way. That feeling of loss lingered as a young boy and every time I looked at Joe it was a reminder that my anger had, in the end, only hurt me.
Christmas took on a different character for me after that. In the years that followed I began to enjoy the giving part more than the receiving part. I still looked through the Wish Book with eager anticipation, but began also to look for things others might enjoy. My moment came when I was looking through the slipper section of the catalog and thought, “That’s something everyone can use and they are really hard to break – even if you throw them.” So that year I conspired with my mom to buy slippers for everyone in the family using my own money (mostly). It was the first gift I had really given, and I had the most fun as I asked everyone to open the presents from me at the same time. The laughter was most rewarding.
Our traditions make Christmas celebrations a rather predictable experience. We tend to do many of the same things at the same time each year. So Christmas may not change much over time, but we do. The things we wish for and the experiences we value change as age and experience inevitably reshape our perspective. We learn the story of Christ’s birth as children and embrace the sentimental version by singing lullabies and carols. What we come to know, however, is the setting was far from peaceful and the circumstances of life very complicated. For me that’s a source of comfort. I still enjoy the idyllic view but find hope in the realization that a great joy can surface in the midst of great struggle – even when things don’t quite turn out as we had imagined.
What I wish for now is very different than what I wished for then. My hope is that beyond all the trappings of celebration and despite the many challenges facing our world, we will find a renewed joy and sense of peace. Perhaps it will begin by setting aside anger and finding joy in giving.