When I was young, my TV time was limited but my mother took me to the town library once a week. One of my favourite series of books to borrow were the Little House on the Prairie collection, where Laura Ingalls Wilder documented her family’s peripatetic wanderings as a child in late 19th century America.
Of all the parts of their rustic life Wilder wrote about, her descriptions of Christmas celebrations fascinated me the most. One year, the creek flooded and Laura and her sister, Mary, despaired that Santa Claus couldn’t reach them. Their neighbour, Mr. Edwards, swam through the freezing, swollen creek to bring their gifts. Each girl rejoiced to receive a stick of peppermint candy, a small sugar cake, a shiny penny and a new tin cup. Laura described the children’s joy: “They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. There never had been such a Christmas."
When the family moved to the banks of Plum Creek, Santa left the girls a treat in their Christmas stockings: "In the packages was candy. Laura had six pieces, and Mary had six. They had never seen such beautiful candy. It was too beautiful to eat. Some pieces were like ribbons, bent in waves. Some were short bits of round stick candy, and on their flat enders were coloured flowers that went all the way through. Some were perfectly round and striped."
I was confounded by all of this. Laura was this excited for a penny? That’s like rejoicing over one naira. Even adjusted for inflation, a penny can’t buy anything. And six pieces of candy would take seconds to eat. I worried that Laura was a simpleton yet I longed to experience holidays with her level of enthusiasm.
The Christmas holidays that were eagerly anticipated in books were mundane in my life. Growing up, my parents celebrated Christmas in an indifferent, recent-Indian-immigrant-in-America kind of way. We went to the house of family friends who always had a beautifully decorated tree and much more holiday spirit than us.
However, we did have our little traditions. There would always be inexplicable things in our stockings, like oranges and packets of hot chocolate powder that had been in the pantry the night before. I pictured my aunty fumbling around at midnight, cursing the fact that she was faced with five empty red socks to fill. It struck me as terribly romantic to get a piece of fruit or a little sachet of brown powder from the cupboard. To me, it was the modern version of receiving a tin cup or a penny.
My parents never cared much about giving us gifts. When my mother took us to the library each week, that was her gift. When my dad drove the same car year after year, spending his money on school fees instead of a newer vehicle, that was his gift.
I never imagined that like Laura Ingalls Wilder, I would one day share my holiday memories with readers, as well. This season, whether you receive a penny, a sachet of Milo or even just a kind word from a loved one, I hope you experience the holidays with the joy and gratitude of the young prairie girls.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Read more at www.monazutshiopubor.com
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