All this talk of shopping, of black this and gray that, of small-business-something and cyber-something-else, and all of the idealized advertising images that accompany such mayhem have reminded me of one of my Christmases past, probably my first “adult” Christmas when I jumped into the buying rituals with both feet and then had to ask myself what it was all about once the dust had settled.
I was 19 and had moved out of my parents’ house at the end of October, taking a room in a downtown LA apartment with two friends from high school. I was working a full-time job (the first and only 40 hour-a-week job I’ve ever held) and thought I was a big deal, making more money than I needed at the time. What better purpose for it than to spend on Christmas presents for my family?
I imagined myself showing up on Christmas Eve at my parents’ house, arms laden with gifts. They’d be big, extravagant, and perfectly wrapped. I would place them under the tree as my parents and sister looked on in awe.
It would be a Hallmark moment. Or maybe a Folger’s coffee moment. You can imagine the scene: the beautifully decorated tree with presents already around it; the happy, beaming family; the oldest child, returning to the hearth (forget that we had no fireplace) bringing not just gifts but Christmas cheer and a sense of affirmation, each gift signifying his success in the world and his love and appreciation for the family that had prepared him for it.
Cheesy as it sounds, that’s how I imagined it. Call me naive. Call me sentimental. Call me the advertising industry’s dupe and pawn. Guilty as charged, on all counts.
The one gift that I remember purchasing was a new turntable for my parents. They didn’t really need a new one. No audiophiles, my parents, they wouldn’t really notice the shift in sound quality as they played their old country albums from the 1970s, but I thought of their 10-year old record player with its faux wood grain sides (how many of you remember when those were the hip new thing?) as a bit of a dinosaur. So I bought a new one, silver plastic rather than wood grain, and took it back to my apartment with armfuls of other gifts, to wrap.
The apartment was old, a suite of rooms in a very run-down old building in the produce district. The roof leaked horribly, and I’m sure the landlord was guilty of a dozen code violations. But whatever. It was home. If you’ve read Take Back Tomorrow, I modeled the main character’s building on this one, minus the leaky roof, and even gave it the same address: 845 1/2 Central. The place is long gone, a parking lot the last time I checked.
I remember wrapping the presents on the bare wood floor of my room, my stereo picking up a broadcast from one of the college stations. The DJ was playing Christmas blues songs. I was just getting into the blues back then and the closest I’d come to hearing Christmas blues was the stuff on Elvis’ Christmas Album, another one of those discs that would be played on the new record player I was wrapping. So I listened to the blues show and continued my fantasy of the Great Homecoming, telling myself I was sophisticated rather than delusional, excited rather than lonely.
The next day, I loaded the loot into my car and made the trek to work, not planning on returning to the apartment until after Christmas. All day long I replayed the Hallmark moment that would come once I’d finished my shift.
So, later that day I finally made it home.
And no one was there.
I forget where they all were–my mom maybe still at work, my dad probably having been talked into driving my sister to the mall for last-minute shopping. It didn’t matter. The house was empty, the illusion dissolved. I gathered the armloads of presents from my car and lugged them to the door, which didn’t burst open in anyone’s surprise and holiday bliss. I had to set the packages on the porch and dig for my key. Then I dragged them inside and set them under the tree where they seemed a lot less spectacular than I’d imagined among the gifts already there. Even the big box with the record player didn’t look all that amazing. And because there’d been no build-up, no wide-eyed audience as I elfed the packages into their places, there didn’t seem to be much of a sense of anticipation for anyone once they did get home to find me and my presents waiting for them.
When my parents did open the package with the record player in it, I remember them being a bit underwhelmed, maybe confused. It wasn’t that they weren’t grateful, probably just that they felt my largesse was an unneeded extravagance.
Which it was. I realize now that I hadn’t just bought gifts for my family, more gifts and more expensive than was customary for our modest tree. I had also bought the whole commerical Christmas package, complete with a sense of obligation and validation upon completing all necessary steps. That Christmas Eve fantasy had just been the bonus, the extra added value of the package I’d bought–and bought into.
I suppose in the end the version of myself as returning son, a man now, was the thing I’d been trying to buy my way into when I bought that record player and wrapped it to the sound of old guitars and older men rattling out the blues 12 bars at a time. Not the kind of thing you can return when you find it doesn’t work. Not the kind of thing you can buy at the mall in the first place.
Now that I’m the same age my parents were that Christmas, I’m glad no one was home on Christmas Eve. Having that illusion shattered didn’t end up doing me any harm. To the contrary, I’m sure it did me some good. At the very least, I reigned in my Christmas spending after that, remembering that my parents would enjoy a simple record rather than a whole record player, kind of the way it had always been before that.