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The best Christmas gifts don’t come from the mall or online browsing

In the antediluvian era of my childhood, when I was six or so — when there was no TV and listening to adventure “serials” like “The Shadow,” “Sky King,” and “The Green Hornet” on the Crosley tabletop radio was a highlight of long winter evenings, when the Christmas season began in December rather than August and there were no giant shopping malls, and when ordering was from the Sears Roebuck catalog, not online — the holiday season, wish lists, and Santa’s largess were far different, far simpler.

In the limey soils of northeast Mississippi, there were cedar trees galore (though everyone called them cedars, I later learned they're actually junipers), so getting a Christmas tree involved simply finding one the right size, with a good shape, hacking it down with a hatchet, and dragging it home. We’d have hooted at the thought of an artificial tree, even were there any.

No LED or twinkly lights; all light strings were of the type that if one bulb went bad, all the lights went out — leading to frequent, extended swapping out of bulbs to find the one that was burned out, and elation when they all finally lit again.

I do not now remember any of the presents Santa brought in those years, not that far removed from the deprivations of the Great Depression and World War II, when the country was still getting back on its feet economically and the average family had little in the way of disposable income.

We got practical things, like socks and hankies and gloves, and there were treats not seen at any other time of year: oranges, tangerines, English walnuts, peppermint sticks, Brazil nuts, cloyingly sweet chocolate covered cherries, plus goodies Mother had baked — the traditional fruitcake, sugar cookies, mincemeat pie, cakes topped with black walnuts and hickory nuts.

There were, of course, a few boy-type gifts for my brothers and me, but from the distance of decades, I have no recollection of them. I do remember the fireworks, which could then, long before OSHA safety regs, be purchased at any grocery store for not much money: whistling red devils, cherry bombs, zebra crackers, skyrockets, Roman candles. What fun!

Today, when our eight-and-under youngest granddaughters compile their three-page single-spaced wish lists of every toy and electronic device they’ve seen on TV in the last six months, they invariably ask what I want Santa to bring me for Christmas, and my reply is: “Nothing — don’t need anything, don’t want anything.”

In their eager anticipation of a Christmas morning with gifts galore, they cannot, of course, even remotely comprehend that there can come a point in one’s life when things no longer have much relevance — that rather, the treasured gifts are having them and those we love to brighten our lives, and being safe in a country that, despite its troubles and divisiveness, is still the envy of most of the rest of the world.

And always, the fervent hope that the long-foretold era of peace and brotherhood that underlies this season can, somehow, be their lifelong gift.

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