Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembrance of Christmas Past...

I began kindergarten in 1952, when the Korean War was still raging. My father and uncles being veterans of World War II, and living in former military dependants housing in a Navy town, awareness of war was as much a part of my life as my annoying little brother.

Christmas, of course, was a big deal. We Baby Boomers flooded the country, our births a joyful counterpoint to the years of war and killing, a celebration of new life and a return to normality. Gender roles were rigid and fixed and while our mothers may have chafed under the social pressure to be housewives instead of career women, we malleable little girls craved what the society…and television commercials…told us we wanted: Tiny Tears baby dolls that cried real tears, doll buggies, miniature kitchens and child-sized brooms and mops, little ironing boards with irons that actually got hot, and a host of other toys that were really nothing more than scaled-down training tools for the lives we were expected to lead.

We knew that Christmas was a time of giving and, being children, we were most concerned about who was giving what to us. But the tradition of helping the less fortunate…and the ever-present spectre of war…gave a different colour to giving. We dropped coins in the bell ringer’s kettle and thanked God every night in our bedtime prayers for our own prosperity but the reality of need did not directly touch us. Christmas to us was a glittery tree with brightly wrapped presents containing dolls, toys, games, and homemade sweets from Grandma. A packet of socks or underwear was unwelcome and even considered quite contrary to the entire concept of a joyful Christmas.

The awakening came, as many do, in school. One morning, well before the Christmas season was upon us, the teacher came to the head of the class with a stack of thin cardboards. She distributed them to us kids, one per child, and then demonstrated how to fold the scored cardboard into a box. The resultant boxes were the exact size and shape as a cigarette carton, and plain gray on the inside. The outside, however, was bright white with a vivid red cross and the words “American Red Cross” emblazoned across the top.

We were to fill these, we were told, with gifts for soldiers overseas, soldiers serving in Korea where it was bitterly cold in the winter. We didn’t understand…what could a bunch of first graders buy to make a soldier happy? Should we give them some of our Lincoln Logs or a colouring book? I was reluctant to part with my precious crayons, but if it would make some miserable soldier happy, I could be persuaded to do so. But then Mrs. Brown passed out a mimeographed sheet, still redolent of the solvents used to reproduce its purple print, a list of suggestions on it. Woolen socks. Bars of soap. Chocolate bars. Cigarettes. Dried fruit. Woolen scarfs. Medical creams and ointments. Vitamin tablets. The list went on and on and on, and I was disappointed that not one entertaining item was there for the soldiers…only what we kids considered to be “bad” presents.

We took the assembled boxed home with Mrs. Brown’s list and dutifully gave them to our parents. My mother, being the “me first!” type that she was, promptly discarded the box and list in the trash. My father, however, retrieved it and, after a disagreement with Mommy, went out for a while. When he returned, he gave me the box and inside was a brand new pair of woollen socks. He was a war veteran…he understood.

Over the next few days, more items found their way into the box…a large bar of soap, some pencils, books of matches, a couple of wash cloths…and then one evening Daddy suggested that maybe the soldier who got this box would like to have a Christmas card as well. It was months yet until Christmas, but I liked the idea. So, with my crayons and some blank newsprint, I set about to draw this soldier a Christmas tree. I also decorated the inside lid of the box.

When we brought our boxes back to school I discovered several other children had also made Christmas cards and Mrs. Brown liked the idea so much, she gave us all time and materials to make even better cards with construction paper cut-outs, glitter, sequins, and, of course library paste. I made a second, fancier card to accompany the first, and soon I had a fine package for my soldier, filling me with pride.

Before long, a woman from the Red Cross came to our classroom and made a considerable fuss over our efforts. Every classroom in our overcrowded elementary school had taken on the same project, and she now had hundreds of wonderful Christmas presents to send to the soldiers in Korea, presents that would remind them of home. She thanked us all, gathered up our boxes and took them away, leaving us feeling proud of ourselves and our efforts, but puzzled why a soldier so far away would want wool socks instead of something fun, like a game. It was not until years later that I finally figured out our packages were destined for soldiers who had no access to such luxuries as soap and warm socks: American prisoners of war in North Korea.

It never happened again. By the next school year, the “Korean Conflict” was over and our awareness of war became limited to the war movies our fathers could not pass up, our classroom “duck and cover” drills, and the Friday noon air raid sirens. With more than a dozen military bases within spitting distance of our school…including a naval air base from which the new supersonic fighters were flying…we were certain we would be a prime target for those “godless Communists” and their atomic bombs. And so we forgot about Korea and the soldiers, and the Christmas boxes faded from our memories as well.

But from this experience I began to learn the joy of giving. It was exciting to see the box slowly fill up and even through my parents were providing the goods, it was my project and I took personal pride as each new item as joined the others. Decorating the box and making the cards for the enjoyment of another…knowing I would never receive thanks or even an acknowledgment, was a new kind of pleasure. I can remember the red construction paper card with the lopsided green tree that I had laboriously cut, with dull, blunted scissors, from another sheet of construction paper, its ragged edges painstaking decorated with glitter-encrusted library paste, sequins, shreds of tissue paper, and scraps of rickrack and other bits and pieces gathered from our mothers’ sewing baskets. I thought it was the most beautiful card in the world and it made me warm inside to think of the pleasure that soldier would find in receiving it.

We cannot ever know how our circumstances can influence others…even strangers on the other side of the globe. Sometimes I find myself wondering who got my Red Cross Christmas box…and if it gave him anywhere near the pleasure to receive it as it gave me to put it together for him. The misery of that anonymous soldier, cold and wretched in an enemy prison camp, was the catalyst for a child, thousands of miles away, to first learn the rewards of giving and sharing.

It has been many, many years since that Christmas box project was undertaken by a classroom of young children, but the effects, for me, have lasted a lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. Mine has to be my big grifter bike I had on my 6th birthday! Still remember it all those years aGO!

    Wishing you a great festive period in SA from all at flowers....


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