Gift-giving marked departure from childhood

The author distinctly remembers when Christmas changed from a time of getting to a time of giving.  | Getty Images

With a dollar in his hand, this prairie youngster’s introduction to the world of giving proved to be a ‘puzzling’ experience

I don’t recall much about December 1968 — I was only eight and busy trying to ace Grade 3.

Girls held no allure yet — I couldn’t even spell puberty — and I had little money. However, as Christmas approached, I zeroed in on one goal — polish my image in the quest for that extra gift or two.

Santa held minimal cache for me anymore — a commercial creation of Coca-Cola. He had disappointed me in the past. He was a false hope. I wanted a sure bet.

That’s what it was all about in the mind of an eight-year old — getting a gift, right? The word “giving” was a foreign concept. Self and selfishness reigned.

Yet occasionally the light bulb clicked on in my head. Short periods of analytical thinking enlightened me with another thought. Gifts were great, but people seemed to enjoy giving, too. That meant taking hard-earned money, discerning what somebody might want, buying it for them and then giving it away for their enjoyment. What kid does that?

So I turned on as much charm as an eight-year old could muster. I chose my two older sisters, Helga and Linda, as subjects. I knew them: they loved their four younger brothers, they were generous, and more importantly, they were earning ready cash from baby-sitting stints with the neighbours.

And so I decided I would help as best I could with my sisters’ household chores: set the table, fold laundry, help with dishes, do cleaning, and also, I’d readily join in with any of their Christmas baking. Puffed wheat squares anyone? Plenty happened at our farmhouse at Basswood, Man.

However, I wasn’t sure about my strategy. There were no progress reports. An occasional platitude of “thank you” or “good work” was lobbed my way. Maybe, though, that was just to keep me working for the next day or week, when everything seemed to repeat. Plus, I had my own chores to do — mainly outside with Dad and those hungry cows. And with three brothers, I still needed time and energy to play. I’d often flop into bed, so tired.

My inspiration came from a materialistic source. Our black and white TV delivered one channel. Our family would gather around it sporadically and take in whatever it offered. A show I remember, Julia, featured a single professional mother in New York City living in a high-rise apartment with her little girl. A Calgary buddy says Diahann Carroll was the star, she of an unusual spelling.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Julia’s tree featured a huge growing mound of gifts. The cone-shape heap of gifts underneath matched the cone-tree shape. I could hardly believe it. It would take me a day to unwrap them. And I’d need hot chocolate breaks to rest up. Is that how the wide world operated at Christmas? Gifts galore?

I continued with my “nice brother” plan. Meanwhile, I scratched through a small chocolate box stashed in my dresser drawer. It had a few marbles, a couple of sparkly stones (with yellow flecks — likely gold), a new pen, some Popsicle Pete coupons, and several coins. I may have found those coins on the schoolyard, and maybe a kind uncle gave me a dime. The sum was about 40 cents. That’s not exactly Christmas budget money to spend in small-town Minnedosa.

Then the unexpected happened. A sister gave me a dollar bill, explaining briefly that maybe I needed cash. She claimed she had a little extra. She hinted too that the cash was my Christmas gift.

OK, now what to do? My strategy worked to garner that added gift, but my conscience nagged me with the axiom that “it is better to give to receive.”

A few days before Christmas, Mom had to make the 12-mile trip to Minnedosa. A few of her beloved urchins piled into the Chevy Biscayne, including myself. I shoved all my money into my pocket. I had no ideas, no plans for it, only a thought that candy would be good to make my brothers jealous.

We ended up at the local Macleod’s store. The place was a unique combination of hardware supplies, toys, and clothes, especially at Christmas. It wasn’t quite hammers mixed together with chicken eggs, but close.

Then I spotted it. A modest 500-piece puzzle featured a countryside scene, much like you could see on our own farm. There were trees on a hill, an open blue creek with bull-rushes alongside, drifted snow, and an endless sky. There was no time to dither nor debate this $.99 cash outlay. I almost ran to the cash register lady and handed over the dollar. She needed 5 cents more for tax, whatever that was. I fished in my pocket and got a nickel. Her brown bag protected my stealth purchase.

Basic puzzling strategies

  • Many begin by completing the border, which defines the shape/size; the flat-edge pieces are easy to identify.
  • I prefer to find the dominant colour/image and assemble that. My idea is that it uses up pieces quickly. Suddenly a 1,000-piece puzzle becomes 800.
  • I have a friend who sorts the pieces into shapes, and then with maybe six shapes, she can find the needed piece quicker.
  • It is tough to have more than two people work on the same area of the puzzle at once: too many arms and heads blocking the lighting, bad breath in close quarters, etc.
  • If people are working on different aspects of the puzzle, check regularly if the chunks fit together.

Siblings & puzzling indiscretions

  • Do not hum or sing at the puzzling table; you don’t have a Pavarotti voice and your humming to a non-descript tune can annoy.
  • Belching, burping or sudden methane emissions will cause even friends to disappear, and so the close quarters of a puzzle table rule out questionable noises and smells.
  • Use underarm deodorant; long cross-table reaches will make this self-evident.
  • Play footie if you wish, but be prepared for questionable looks or even a swift kick.
  • No snacks on the table. Who wants potato chip crumbs decorating the table, or sticky chocolate trimming the edges of pieces?

Soon we were headed home. The clandestine package was safely tucked under my winter jacket. I forgot about buying candy, although the Basswood General Store offered MoJos’s cheap, two for a cent. You can’t beat that.

Then something happened. I began to feel good inside — happy, without laughing. I knew the entire family loved doing puzzles together during the holiday season. I would give this to the whole family. I hoped they would enjoy it.

Christmas morning came, and unnoticed, I slid the box under the tree. I had found paper that said “Noel,” and my wrapping efforts were decent. I kept my identity secret by pencilling in that the giver was St. Nick, but Mom told others later that it was from Mark. She knew her children’s printing.

As we unwrapped our Christmas gifts, my gift drew “oohs” and “ahhs,” and later that day, a sister spread it out on our games table. The family dived in. The puzzling began. Chattering and laughter filled the living room. A simple $1 gift delivered joy.

I recall that the puzzle itself had pieces that did not inter-lock well, had too much “white” (matching snow and sky), and the picture itself was slightly fuzzy. Where it ended up with my parent’s three major moves, nobody knows.

I do know the gesture made the gift giver happy, this poor little boy. He had somehow learned the joy of giving with that first-ever Christmas gift. The $1 price tag even made for an inexpensive lesson.

In my 50 years since, I have given and received many gifts at Christmastime – expensive, thrifty, hand-made, or re-gifted. However, none of that really matters.

What matters, though, is that that humble puzzle gift helped make it a happier 1968 Christmas for six children — the five who received it, plus the one who gave it. Incredibly, I left much of my “me, me” childhood behind with that innocent purchase. Others now mattered.

I rarely match the wonderful benevolent feeling of giving that long ago first-time gift. I may never, really.

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