The Christmas of 1972 in the small town of Orem, Utah is, without a doubt, the apex of my childhood Christmas delight. As Thanksgiving passed, and decorations started coming out, the December of my first grade year found me excited, and I don't mean a little bit; I mean sugar-fueled, unmedicated ADHD, holiday excited! Christmas was coming, and I could hardly stand myself! The tree, the gifts, the food! My eyes gleamed in anticipation, and daily discussions on the playground.
Unbeknownst to me, my parents had decided that we would drive down to California and have a snowless, calm, and low-key Christmas with my grandparents. My mom would ship all of our presents early, skip decorating, and just cook the dinner there. My grandparents would have their own tree, and my dad would help to decorate the tall peaks of their house. So it was simple. We did not need a tree. We did not need any more presents, and we did not need to decorate for holidays that we would spend in another state. It was slated to be the easiest Christmas ever.
My young hyper-mind could not really wrap itself a concept so foreign as a Christmas going uncelebrated or undecorated at my house. There were some things that I knew for sure; we needed a Christmas tree. And we needed to start seeing presents. My mom was good at deflecting my questions, so I went straight to my father. When, "When are we getting a tree? Is it going to be a real tree? A fake tree? Are we getting regular lights, or colored ones like the Young's? Where are we putting the tree, dad? In the middle of the room, or over there in the corner like we did last year? Can we have the red bottom? When is Christmas? How many more days 'til Christmas?"went unanswered, I ramped it up with even MORE questions, "You're home! Can we go get a tree and decorate it NOW? Is it time NOW? Is it almost Christmas? Do you need help putting up the lights? Can I help? Can I help you put up the lights NOW?" Finally, after one of these lengthy interrogations my poor besieged father had had enough. As I went in for another round of yuletide questioning my father blurted out in sharp frustration, "WE ARE NOT HAVING CHRISTMAS!" As my eyes dilated to the size of saucers he punctuated with, "WE CAN'T AFFORD IT!" The ruse produced a shock that did exactly as he had hoped. There were no more questions about Christmas from me.
That was that. My father had looked me in the eye and spoken it, which was gospel truth to me. And as sure as Maxine Goldfine had a big behind, there would be no Christmas for the Bass family. Because we couldn't afford it. Looking back, I feel rather mature about the way I handled it. There were no tears, complaints, or self-pitied feelings. I took the news as absolute and final. Gone were all thoughts of trees and tinsel. Christmas was just a black pall of nothing to look forward to. My days, and my father's, went back to absolute normal.
That next day on the playground, my friends were laying out their hopes for bikes and basketball shaped presents under the tree, and wanted to hear any updates from my house. "We're not having Christmas," I said. "We can't afford it." Their eyes looked like mine had, and there were whispers about who else this might have happened to before.
My first grade teacher, noticing a distinct turn in my enthusiasm in my demeanor gently prodded, "John, tell me more about your Christmas wish list!" I gave her the same dreary news, "We're not having Christmas, we can't afford it." Tears sprang to her eyes and her hand shot to her mouth. It was news I was getting used to sharing.
During church, my Primary School teacher asked about how many of us had our trees up and I repeated flatly, "We're not going to have a tree, or Christmas this year. We can't afford it." Adults always seemed thrown when I would mention our inability to have Christmas, but I had learn to live with it. You could see plainly that we had no decorations at our home, no tree. No nothing. Until...
About a week before Christmas my family and I were all sitting in the undecorated front room when the doorbell rang. Figuring that it was a friend coming to play, I went to answer the door. Nobody was there, but a tree was! Right in the middle of the porch, the most beautiful lush Christmas tree I had ever seen! It was a Christmas MIRACLE! I motioned to my parents, who looked at each other in alarm, to come help bring the tree in the house. "Look! Its a tree! Its a CHRISTMAS tree! Its a miracle!" I crowed. My sisters and I danced rings around the tree. We would have a tree.
Dumbfounded and confused, my parents brought it in the house, and did what anyone else would do with a tree in the house. We decorated it. Begrudgingly my folks brought out the ornaments and garlands and lights for our gifted tree while asking each other who would have thought to bring a tree.
The very next night we were all in the front room, as we had been the night before, when the doorbell rang again. All the children sprang to the door - could a miracle repeat itself? It could. There on the porch, in a beautiful and full box WAS WRAPPED PRESENTS! Big presents, small presents, presents for my parents, and presents for each of us. Oh the joy that flushed my face was 100 watts. There was a TREE, there were PRESENTS! We pulled in the box as my father furrowed his brow and looked to the left and the right of our property. He came in to start questioning my mom when, "BING BONG!" the doorbell went off again. In the same spot that our tree had appeared stood another box. FOOD! The most glorious kind of food! Turkey, stuffing, canned food, cake mixes and everything for the finest feast a kid could hope to gorge on. Christmas was complete. A tree. Presents. And food. Angels had come that year, and the Bass Family WOULD have Christmas.
What we did not anticipate was exactly how MUCH Christmas we would have. The very next night our living room turned into a small forest as two more trees were separately delivered. We set up the second one next to the first, but the third one we just kinda propped in a vacant corner. My mom kept peppering my father with questions, "why do people keep giving us stuff?"
Then came the presents. Boxes and boxes and boxes of presents! Friends from school, and church would drop off a turkey and grocery bags of food as my mother searched for some counter space to put the deluge of goodwill that kept coming to our door. We filled up the first tree with presents, and then the second. After many more door bell drops we had enough presents to surround all three Christmas trees! It was better than my mind could ever have conceived possible. My mom was picking through the spots on the floor to go deliver some fudge for the church charity drive, muttering under her breath.
She was so utterly confused. I remember how that changed to "gobsmacked" when a member of the Relief Society stopped by our home one evening, and glancing around our three trees and pirate's hoard of presents on the floor, and food of every sort crammed over every inch of counter and table, she handed my mother another full dinner including her own fudge, "We thought you might enjoy a little something to lift your spirits this season!" After the door shut, my mother clenched her fists, tilted her head back and screamed, "WHY DOES EVERYONE THINK WE ARE POOR!?"
"Who cares?!" I thought. It was the very best Christmas EVER. Not only was it the best Christmas I had ever had in Utah, but we got DOUBLE PRESENTS in California! My sisters and I got every single toy that was created for our age group that year. For some reason, my parents were not as joyful. My mother was crabby, to say the least. She donated many of our presents, and even ended up taking extra decorations to the Goodwill. She was suddenly fielding questions about, "How are you doing... really?" from all sorts of people. "We're fine! WE'RE FINE!" she'd say. And then more loads of food would show up.
The sheen of the Christmas joy began to wane as I began to put the pieces together. My friend Rob said, "Did you get the [toy] on your front porch? It was supposed to be mine, but my mom said that you needed it more because you were poor." My teacher was very conciliatory, asking if I had enough toothpaste and socks. "Well, yah." Oh. OHHHH! The penny dropped.
Throughout the years, my mom would say in a very disgusted tone, "And what about that weird year, where everyone thought we were POOR!?" I couldn't do it. For years I couldn't do it. I couldn't tell her what I had done. How I had told every friend, neighbor, school and primary teacher that we would not be having Christmas. After having been away for a number years, I decided that at 21 1/2 years old I would come clean. I led with, "Mom, remember that really awesome Christmas?" "UGH! What an AWFUL YEAR! EVERYONE THOUGHT WE. WERE. POOR! Why?" I started backing out of the room. "Well, it was dad really..." I started. "He said that we weren't going to have Christmas because we couldn't afford it. And I told a few people," My mom was on her feet, and though I was taller, I was still a bit terrified. "WHAT DID YOU DO!?" she said with the skin starting to come away from her skull. "I told my friends. And the neighbors." I dodged a shoe, "and my school teacher," I dodged another shoe, "and everyone at church!" I ran out of the house with my mother shouting, "JOHN! HOW COULD YOU!? THEY ALL THOUGHT WE WERE POOR!!" And so the memory has ripened over time. It was the best of times, and for some, it was the worst of times. But it was definitely the most memorable of times.