What was your favorite childhood Christmas gift? Mine was a big head, which come to think of it, might say more about me than I intended. The head had big blond hair and pale lips and blond eyelashes. I think I called her Linda, but I can’t say for sure. I know that all the pretty girls at Arnold Elementary, outside of Annapolis, Maryland, seemed to be called Linda, except for the Linda who lived down my street who the older boys called other things.
My Linda, the one I had been asking for all year, came with mascara and blue eye shadow and cotton-candy pink lip gloss. She also either came with scissors, which was the gift’s fatal flaw, or I found some very quickly. Farrah Fawcett-feathered hair was all the rage then, and I would nearly swoon when I passed by the sixth grade girls in my school, impossibly cool Lindas who wore that hair, and those shinny lips and that blue eye shadow and could, with magician-like deftness, twirl their gum around their index finger while managing to keep it from getting it hopelessly stuck in their feathered hair.
The 1970s was a lot things. Wholesome it was not. Outside my house, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam malaise had overtaken the country. Outside, my friend’s parents weere dancing disco and their fathers were snorting cocaine and mothers were coming a long way, baby.
Inside, in my house, my mother cooked every night and read to us every night, and she made Christmases so special.
Like, no doubt plenty of those gum-twirling girls, my Linda aged badly. Within days, she turned into an art-student’s post-modern project. Her hair was jagged. Her lip gloss perpetually smeared. Her mascara hung in clumps and the blue never stayed on her plastic eyelids. But she was perfect while she lasted. And so was that Christmas.
Almost all of us have a version of Linda. I asked a few of our elected officials what their favorite childhood gift was. Some of them emailed their answers back (some of them I edited lightly). Some of them gave them to me on the phone. Some answered the way I asked. Some of them used the question to recount general childhood memories. Two of them, both Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott—both remembered giving more than getting.
All of them say something about inchoate childhood longings, and who we all ended up becoming. All of them say something about the magic of Christmas, through the eyes of children that they were and in many cases, particularly mine, still are. Read on:
Rep. Don Young got started his gun-loving early:
The best gift I ever received was a BB gun when I was six years old –a Red Ryder BB gun. It cost $2.50. My brother and I both got one that year. He shot his off in front of the family on Christmas day and shot a hole in the ceiling. His was taken away from him and I got to keep mine. That was my first of many guns, one I’ll always remember.
When we first talked on the phone, Sen. Berta Garner said that she remembers a great gift of a little red suitcase, which seemed prophetic because she had just returned from Laos. But when she thought more about it, it was encyclopedias that she most remembers:
On reflection, my best Christmas memory is the year I was 5 and my sister 4. We lived in the mountains in Puerto Rico. Our parents asked whether we wanted bicycles or a set of Childcraft encyclopedias. We immediately chose bicycles. Then our parents reconsidered and started a campaign to change our minds, and of course we got the encyclopedias. We loved them. We read the cover to cover, over and over again. When we moved to London, I was in 8th grade and mom said it was time to pass them on to someone else. We were not quite ready to part with them so each of us chose one favorite and gave up the rest. Today, somehow, my sister has both of those volumes but I do read them again when I visit her in Colorado.
Sen.-elect Dan Sullivan will always remember his first football:
As a young kid, my life revolved around football. Before school, recess, afterschool — it was all football, all the time. So I will always remember the year I received a NFL model football from Santa. Looking back many years later, it might seem like a simple gift, but it sure was put to good use by my entire neighborhood for years!
Rep. Lynn Gattis has a memory and a story about her favorite gift. Both are pure Alaskan:
I was raised in a large family and Christmas was a great time. My dad always played Bing Crosby’s and The Andrews Sisters’-“Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way to say Merry Christmas” or his favorite Russian Army band songs, all on a scratchy record player. We would sing along to the songs, having no idea what “mele Kalikimaka” meant.
One year at Christmas, my folks decided that they would pack up the kids in the station wagon, and head down the Alcan to the “states” to visit relatives in California. My dad got a bit past Tok when he spied a caribou. So he did what any self-respecting Alaskan would do: He shot it, gutted it and put it on top of the station wagon (I thought everyone did that kind of thing). At 40 below, the caribou froze in no time. We traveled through Washington and since it was Christmas time, with a caribou now thawing, nose dripping blood, you can imagine the horrified kids and parents, as they saw what could only be deemed “the Griswalds” driving down a major freeway with “Rudolph” strapped to the top of a now somewhat gruesome looking station wagon. We still chuckle at those city slickers. My dad got to the relative’s house and hung his caribou from a tree and was able to finish dressing it out.
Another year, my dad had the bright idea to take some army ammo boxes found from bivouac maneuvers and spray paint them in different colors with our names on them. For starters, those ammo boxes weighed a good couple of pounds and we lived way atop Bear Creek Hill at mile 126 on the Richardson, so it was a hike to get up and down with those lunch boxes. I’m not allowed to tell who got walloped, only once, with that lunchbox. It was a cherished gift that I kept for many years. I called my brothers and they loved them too. It certainly wasn’t the cost, but it was Sputnik time and I remember some kid had a Sputnik lunch pail, and I thought mine was so much better; it had my name on it. One of my brother’s lunch boxes had a bullet hole in it, which made it much more valued. It certainly wasn’t the cost of the gift. It was something that my dad made. I wish I still had that lunch box today.
Rep Bill Stoltze, who grew up in Chugiak and who I interviewed over the phone, maybe got tricked by his gift:
We had a pretty big family of 10 kids, and as a rule, there wasn’t a lot of money spent on gifts. Fruit was a big deal, it was a novelty. If you had a box of oranges you have some pretty good friends. But there was one gift that I was really excited about. I was maybe around 11 or 12, and my grandparents, who lived down the street, gave me a machete. My parents looked a little askance of it and a lot of people were surprised. It was a pretty big deal. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. When springtime came around, I got to use it by clearing the brush in my grandparent’s yard. Maybe that’s why they gave it to me.
Gov. Bill Walker remembers what he gave more than what he received:
The memories I have are of the gifts that I gave; not so much the ones I received. My family and I made gifts for each other because we didn’t have the money to buy them.
When I was 12 years old and helping my father build houses in Valdez, I came across some hardwood under a refrigerator we were supposed to install. Hardwood was hard to come by in Valdez in those days. I took that piece of hardwood, cut it and sanded it. I also salvaged some copper I had found while plumbing and, with all of those pieces, I made a candelabra for my mother. It took me about a week. She was very touched. We used that candelabra for Christmas dinners.
For my father, I made him a wind chime made out of the nails he had bent during construction projects. He wasn’t too excited about the reminder of the nails he had bent.
I do remember the gift that my older sister, Kathy, made for me when I was in high school and learning to play the saxophone. She had engraved and burned into wood ‘Patience is a virtue,’ but had misspelled ‘virtue.’
Sen. Kevin Meyer remembers the joy of a new bike on a Nebraska farm:
I think I was about 7 years old when I woke up early one cold Nebraska Christmas day morning. We lived on a small farm and didn’t have much money so our expectations from Santa were not too great. Plus we were a family of four kids. But we were still excited for Christmas and couldn’t wait. I remember early Christmas morning walking out of my bedroom which I shared with my brothers, to the living room where the Christmas tree was. I was so surprised and overwhelmed to see there was a gold Schwinn Stingray bicycle, with the high-rise handle bars and a banana seat with my name on the name tag. This was what I really, really wanted, but thought it would never happen. As I look back , my Dad must have seen me eyeing the bike through the store window one day when we were in town getting supplies. I still wonder where he hid it from me. I thought I knew all the hiding places on the farm. Plus a bike isn’t easy to hide. It was indeed a surprise and my best gift ever.
For Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, gift-giving was communal:
When I was young, growing up in Yakutat, Christmas was celebrated by the entire community at the local Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, a community hall. Every family in town—which was about 300 people—would bring their gifts into the hall on Christmas Eve. It was a community celebration event, which made Christmas very special.
As a young person growing up in a small Native community that didn’t have a lot, it made an impression on me that we celebrated all together; no one was left out. We made things for each other—sleds with wooden runners, knitting and crocheting.
I would make slingshots out of rubber from the inner tube of old cars, a hunk of leather to hold the missile and I would find wood—the best alder branch I could find. We also made bows and arrows, which we used to play cowboys. We played cowboys because in the movies, they always won.
Whatever you could make for yourself, you made for others. There wasn’t just gift-giving in our family; there was gift-giving in the community. Christmas was a community holiday.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, who again is a new grandmother, is currently taking care of one of her son’s four children while the parents have some bonding time with the new baby. Still, she took a few minutes to share with me that her favorite gift when she was a child in Fairbanks was an Easy-Bake Oven, which she went on to make lots of chocolate cakes in.
The Easy-Bake Oven was introduced in 1963 and was immediately a huge hit. North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson, who still is a big baker, also remembers hers:
When I was seven years old, I received an easy bake oven. I was so excited and would bake in it every day, always excited to see it raise up over the pan and then as you slid it out it would always take the top off. I remember cutting circles of wax paper so it would not stick to the bottom of the pan and every once in a while my sisters and I would forget to take it off the cake. To say the least wax paper does not taste very good. I still have it to this day although I have not cooked in it for many years. I may have to pull it out of storage and see if it still works.
Sen. Hollis French remembers the magic of a sled:
I was ten and I got a toboggan. Our house in Virginia had a good sized hill and so we put candle wax on the toboggan and my brother and two sisters rode that toboggan for hours. It was a beautiful piece of work — wooden and big enough to fit four of us on.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux grew up in Baltimore and New Jersey. I interviewed her on the phone for this one. She told me about walking hand-and-hand with her father–and there is nothing better in the world than that–while the trains idled on the track.
I remember one year when I was little I really wanted a train set, and my dad bought me one. Somehow, we lived close enough to the tracks. It wasn’t a poor neighborhood. It was solid middle to lower-middle class neighborhood. My father and I would take these walks, and we would wave at the guy on the caboose. I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 or 6 years old. It was something I did with my father. I think he put the tracks on a big board or something and set it up for Christmas morning. It brings back fond memories. I haven’t thought of that train set for years and years.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski remembers a Knitting Jenny box, which doesn’t sound very special, but is to the Murkowski family on Christmas:
Coming from a family of six kids, we never got really big gifts. Christmas was not necessarily about quality gifts it was about quantity under the tree, and one year when we were all young, I got a “Knitting Jenny” for Christmas and it wasn’t a very special thing. It was one of those looms, used to weave cloth, but it came in a really nice and sturdy box that was somewhat of medium size – so sturdy that the box itself became a family holiday tradition. That Knitting Jenny box was passed down for probably fifteen Christmases and somebody would always get the Knitting Jenny box and you never knew what was inside, but you knew it had to be something good because it came in the Knitting Jenny box – I guess that means that Knitting Jenny became something like an honorary Christmas elf assigned to my family.
Rep. Benny Nageak, who I interviewed on the phone, shares a memory about the extraordinary lengths his mother went through to make Christmas special on top of the world, in Barrow, Alaska.
We didn’t have much as we were growing up. Today, you can buy a tree with the lights already on, but there were no trees in Barrow in those day, or if there were, they were too pricey. One year when I was about 8 years old, my mom, she was worried about the tree, so she made a Christmas tree out of a broom. That was the most memorable Christmas of my life. I don’t know how she did it, but it was beautiful. I can’t remember what I got. Probably some mukluks and a parka and stuff like that. But I think about that Christmas and the broom that looked like a Christmas tree all the time.
I found this one to be the most touching story of them all. Rep. Les Gara who is a tireless advocate for foster kids, shares a story about the best present he ever received, while he himself a foster kid.
Like a lot of folks I didn’t grow up with what a lot of the neighborhood kids had. For a while when I was around 9, 10 and 11 I always went to friends’ houses because they had car racing tracks, and in our neighborhood that was today’s X Box. All the neighborhood kids had electric tracks and cars, and that’s what we played with when it was too cold out to play ball.
I’d bring my racetrack cars over to friends’ houses, and we’d pretend we knew what we were doing by putting lots of 3 in 1 oil in them, and basically I think that made us have to buy new cars.
But I didn’t have my own track, and for years wanted one a lot so I could have friends over for our race-a-thons.
Somewhere around age 11, I sneaked around the house to look in the closets where I figured my foster parents would put my presents. And there was a racetrack. A small one. But a track. That was exciting, and somehow that gift still stands out.
The small track sets basically had curved tracks and very few straight ones that let you pick up speed. The bigger ones had longer straightaways. So my track was one where your car fell off the track a lot making constant turns. Or you could drive really slow. Still, for some reason, even though my wife Kelly has given me great presents and folks have gotten me much better ones (fly rods!), as a kid, that was the coolest one ever.
P.S. When I started working more (paper routes, shoveling, etc, which I think I started at when I was about 10) I bought more tracks, and at some point I had a track that didn’t make your car fall.
Merry Christmas Alaska. I hope that everyone of us gets to unwrap at least one present. And I hope that when you’re doing so, you’re taken back, for just a moment, to your childhood, when the world was full of magic, when a bike could send you to galaxies, when you could slide through a winter-wonderland on a sled, when an idling train and your father’s hand made you feel safe, when a football could whiz across the world, when you could protect your family with a BB gun, when a machete could turn you into a Valley warlord, when you misspelled virtue, when you could make delicious cakes all by yourself, when your very own lunchbox meant the world, when you were a cowboy and always won, when a racetrack and a loom could make you giddy, when a broom could transform itself into a Christmas tree.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org