Friday, December 15, 2006


"We Three Kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts, we travel afar..."

This is a story I wrote a few years ago. This year I did nearly all my Christmas shopping in the craft markets of Chile and Argentina. Still, I'm always finding I'm living on a shoe-string during the holiday season. One reason is, I'm not teaching classes at this time of year. It's my winter break. But somehow things always turn out just fine!

Here it is, that Jolly Old Season again and true to tradition my bank account is running on empty. No, not because I squandered every cent on presents. Fact is, I haven’t even started shopping yet. It’s just a fact of life that happens when one lives on an extremely low-income budget.

Am I worried? Not really. Somehow, things always work out alright. Besides, I had lots of experience in my past at organizing gala Christmas celebrations on a shoestring.

I recall those “hard times” back in the ’70’s when I was a divorced single mom struggling to support two kids on a miniscule salary and at times an even more miniscule donation from the dole. My boyfriend and I decided to cut the costs by moving into a big house which we shared with a variety of other equally poor lodgers and friends and assorted dogs and cats. As my boyfriend was on the lam from the American army (this was during Viet Nam) any work he had was under-the-table at a car wash. The other lodgers were young college students, and an occasional deserter or wayward hippie that took shelter with us. We never turned anyone away and each guest or tenant, no matter how impoverished, would participate by helping with cooking, sharing expenses and whatever. We all learned how to make do with very little and we were a happy, carefree gang.

The house had been occupied by bikers before we moved in and was known as “The Opium Palace”. We’d hung an American flag upside down in the window as our form of ‘protest’ against the war and there was a big mirror ball hanging in the middle of the front room ceiling.

The first year we moved in, with our very sparse budget, we were still determined to make the best of it for the Christmas season. After all, it isn’t Christmas without parties, decorations and presents. So all of us got together and cut out coloured tissue paper snowflakes to decorate the windows. We hung lights and somehow managed to get a Christmas tree which we decorated with traditional balls and tinsel as well as strings of popcorn. But what to do for presents?

It happened that I had a lot of material goods brought from my past life as a plant-manager’s wife. So, I sorted through the china tea-cups, jewellery and other items that I had stored away, carefully picking just the right gift for each of my friends. The girls in the house baked Christmas goodies and the old house was full of the delicious, familiar smells of the holidays. The whole motley crew enjoyed a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

It was a special Christmas because it wasn’t in the least bit ‘commercial’. Everything we had made or chosen from our own belongings to give away. It gave Christmas a new, special meaning.

There were a few other Christmases on a shoestring too, during those years. Once I remember us having a box of odds and ends: ribbons, tinsel, shiny paper, glue, sparkles and various artsy craftsy thing and each guest who came visiting had to make a decoration for the Christmas tree. One year my daughter and I made gingerbread houses for all our friends. Another time we had a Christmas cookie contest and decorated sugar cookies cut in various festive shapes which we hung on the Christmas tree. The ornamental cookies were so pretty we decided to keep them for the next year. But alas! The following Christmas when I opened the box up, the mice had eaten all the cookie ornaments!

I recall as a kid, my Mom used to make whole wardrobes for our Christmas dolls, and sew all our holiday clothes too. My parents didn’t have a lot of money and in those days there were no credit cards but there were always plenty of gifts under the tree, and lots of goodies to eat. Christmas was a jolly time spent with family and friends. I guess those early days taught me how to have Christmas on a shoestring and in a way, those Christmases are the most memorable.

"'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be."
Shaker song 1848 st.l "Simple Gifts"

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