One lean Christmas, we decided to make a deal

Big family gatherings, games, and endless leftovers spring to mind when I recall the Christmas seasons of my childhood. That, and the Christmas-morning apples, oranges, and pecans we kids found in our shoes. (Instead of hanging stockings, we left our shoes under the tree - which meant that I got more than anyone else.)

Exchanging gifts played an important - but not central - role in the festivities. Most of the presents were practical items, special because someone had wrapped them in pretty paper and given them to us. My grandmother, I learned later, dispatched my aunt with enough cash to spend 50 cents apiece on gifts for the grandchildren. I still have two of mine: a small, taupe-tinted glass container with a fawn-shaped handle on the lid, and a little manicure set in a red-leather case, the "leather" of which long ago deteriorated, revealing layers of German newspaper.

Each of us would find at least one toy - in a good year, two or three - to unwrap, plus the little trinkets that we kids gave each other.

Gifts for the grown-ups were mostly clothing, small appliances, and the like, except for the lopsided ceramic leaves, pin cushions, pot holders, et al. we made at school and gave to our parents.

By and by, my older brothers went forth and multiplied, and our Christmas gatherings moved from my grandparents' home to our own. In this new era, Christmas became splashier, with my brothers' children being overwhelmed in a sea of elaborate toys. Cartoonist Hank Ketchum must have peeked through our window before drawing his classic "Dennis the Menace" panel in which a dejected Dennis, surrounded by mounds of toys, boxes, and wrapping paper, asks, "Is this all?"

Years later, Ken and I kept Christmas with our two boys closer to the spare holidays of our own childhoods. We would read the Christmas story from the Bible and exchange gifts, mostly for the kids, being sure there were a couple of cool items mixed in with the socks and PJs.

One year, when the boys were about 11 and 8, our finances were particularly lean. Christmas was going to look pretty grim to children that age, I realized. We managed to get one inexpensive "real" gift for each of them, but that was about it.

A couple of nights before the big day, I looked at our little tree and all the empty space under it and decided to wrap things just to make the tree look more festive. I started with a bar of soap. Ken liked orange marmalade, so I wrapped a jar of that and put it under the tree. A walk through the house yielded more items. And the next day I went out and bought some candy bars and wrapped each of them.

It wasn't until it came time to open gifts that it dawned on me that all of those intriguing "presents" had raised expectations. How were we going to avoid that letdown?

On a whim, I picked up a nicely wrapped roll of toilet paper and tossed it to our younger son, Scott. He looked at it warily and turned it over a couple of times, clearly suspicious.

Then inspiration struck. During the school break, the boys had been watching "Let's Make A Deal," a television show where contestants had the option of trading sight-unseen prizes for other sight-unseen prizes in hopes of getting something better.

"Wait!" I said, as Scott started to tear the wrapping paper. "Do you want to keep that, or - " I picked up another package (a gift-wrapped candy bar) - "would you like to trade it for this?"

Immediately his brother Tom coached, "Trade! Trade!"

Scott traded for the candy bar, and then I offered him the bar of soap instead. He wanted to trade again, but Ken and Tom encouraged him to keep the present he had, and he did so. He opened it and discovered with great satisfaction that he had made a good trade. A cheap candy bar that moments ago was doomed to disappoint had, in this new context, become a triumph.

We were off! Both boys and Ken had opportunities to keep or trade until all the presents had been unwrapped, one way or another. (I wound up with the toilet paper.) Since I knew what was in all the packages, it was easy to be sure Ken got his marmalade and dark-chocolate Hershey bar, and each boy received his legitimate gift.

Naturally, those good gifts came last. And after a parade of mundane household items, the boys were pleasantly surprised to find any cool presents at all.

Our lean Christmas turned out to be so much fun that the boys requested the trading theme again the following year and for another year or two after that.

And no one ever asked, "Is this all?"

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