Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 11, 2015

The humble, the simple, the understated and the imperfect

Many of us are familiar with the story of the "Little Drummer Boy," who played his drum for Baby Jesus because he had no expensive gifts to give. While drum music is not a very appropriate gift for a newborn, it was still a wonderful gift as it was all the boy had. Cartoon character Charlie Brown had a similar experience when his forlorn Christmas tree was made beautiful with some help from his friends and a few lights and ornaments.

When we were children, we proudly presented our parents with the construction-paper, glitter-studded, lopsided stars and angels we made in school. And when we became parents ourselves, we joyfully accepted the artwork our little ones brought home. I still have puzzle-piece trees, hand-drawn-and-decorated gingerbread people and ice-cream-stick reindeer that Mariya, 29, and Katie, 23, made when they were in grade school. These home-made decorations grace our home every Christmas.

I also have the clear crystal heart Mariya gave me many years ago. The note on the back of it says: "To Mom from Mariya for you to keep forever." I have the ring Katie gave me with the note: "Dear mommy, I am only giving you one present this year because one of your gifts broke. So I hope you understand. Love Katherine."

My first "store-bought" gifts I got Mom and Dad were ordered from a catalogue. I was so excited when they arrived. For Mom, I got salt and pepper shakers in the shape of old-fashioned milk cans and a matching sugar-and-creamer set that looked like farm buckets. For Dad, I got a wooden dresser caddy that held his billfold, keys and coins.

Husband Art bought his mother Donna a small nut grinder for 29 cents when he was about 10. Donna used it to grind walnuts for the peppernuts she made each Christmas. The last time she used it was 2008, when she was 98 years old. That small gift was used more than 50 years!

When my late husband Jerome and I settled into married student housing at K-State in 1981, we couldn't afford to buy much of anything. In fact, one time we told his parents that we splurged and went out to eat, spending a grand total of $3.29 for our meal at Taco Hut. They thought we were joking, but we were serious.

For Christmas that year, we bought a beat-up two-drawer file cabinet for Dad. Jerome took the "dings" out of it the best he could and then he spray-painted it in our bathroom tub, lining the tub and the walls with newspapers so the black paint wouldn't get on them.

We bought green poster boards and made family trees for both sides of the family. We pasted photos of family members onto the poster board, carefully penned names below each and then drew lines connecting our grandparents to our parents, aunts and uncles and eventually to us kids. We didn't have photos for all the relatives, but we did the best we could.

Our family Christmas trees when I was growing up weren't perfect either. We either bought a scraggly one from the local grocery store or cut a cedar tree from the farm.

Art's family sold Christmas trees that they hauled from the North Woods to his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. In the early years, they sold the best ones and waited until two to three days before Christmas to choose the best of the "Charlie Browns" that remained. Art said many times their grandparents' Christmas tree was as much built as grown. His Uncle Art used branches trimmed from other trees to fill in bare spots. He then drilled holes for the supplemental branches, used a nail to hold each in place and then added fishing line to support them.

I recently heard a piece on National Public Radio about the animated cartoon, ´┐ŻA Charlie Brown Christmas" celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. NPR critic Eric Deggans said:

When you think about it, there are lots of good reasons why "A Charlie Brown Christmas" should never become a TV classic. Instead of using grown-up actors to deliver polished imitations of children, they had real kids voice "Peanuts" characters like Charlie Brown and Lucy. ... The animation was crude, cranked out in six months to meet a pressing deadline. There was no laugh track, and the score was slightly melancholy, written by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.

Lee Mendelson, the executive producer of the special, told the Archive of American Television, "We all thought we had ruined 'Peanuts.' It seemed very slow, and it was too religious, blah, blah. We didn't know."

Then he added, "Then it goes on the air and it gets, like, a 45 share. And in those days, there were only three networks, so I think we had half the United States tuned in who had television."

When I was in college, roommate Deb and I had a "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree for our dorm room. Although it was small and misshapen, we loved the tree anyway and covered it with ornaments and icicles. When I mentioned the 50th anniversary to Deb, she said it reminded her of our college Christmas tree and "how simple and 'different' can be beautiful and meaningful."

It was not the inherent value or beauty of these objects that made them special. Instead, it was what they represented. Sometimes it is the humble, the simple, the understated, or the imperfect that speaks to our heart far better than some expensive, shiny perfect gift.

Left: Deb, left, and Gloria with their dorm-room "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree; upper-right: Jerome with the filing cabinet in the bathroom tub; lower-right: Dad and Mom inspecting our "family tree" gift.

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