Quirky Ghosts and Marquee Gifts: Memories of Christmas Past

Features / December 21, 2017

GRASSO: Well, I figured I’d kick off our recollections of Christmas memories in style: with this Polaroid photo of my Christmas morning: Saturday, December 25, 1982. These are the wicker basket, cheap metal-tube TV stand, red fuzzy carpeting years before my parents got all yuppie aspirational and swapped out the earth tones for pastels, the functional aluminum accents for brass. (Let’s leave aside those classic 1970s Italian-American satin tree ornaments for the time being.) For little 7-year-old Mike, these were the years before flashy G.I. Joes and Transformers ruled the roost gift-wise. You can see how much humbler the gifts are: hockey sticks and old-fashioned wooden sleds (this is before the plastic saucer sled became de rigueur in my neighborhood). Board games, as I’ve written about before, were always a favorite of mine, even at this early age. Probe and Conspiracy were both probably a little bit above my age level, but I still tried my hardest to teach my folks how to play. Being an only child was awesome on Christmas morning but, honestly, a bit sad afterwards, as I had few people to play all these games with. But hey, Electric Football, the Rams vs. Cowboys edition! I’m sure my dad played that with me, or at least tried to. In these hinge years, as video games and computers slowly became more ubiquitous (I think you can just barely see the edge of our Atari 2600 peeking out from behind the Tyco slot car set), we still had to resort to primitive entertainment, such as a piece of sheet metal vibrating 22 fragile plastic football players around.

Eh, being an only child in a time of plenty can make you feel really embarrassed 35 years later. As does the case of Miller High Life in the corner of the photo. I hope that wasn’t a gift and was a storage box or something else instead. Well, guys, how about your Christmas memories? Does this photo trigger any, or were my early childhood game-and-toy tastes just hopelessly idiosyncratic?

ROBERTS: The first one that pops into my mind is Christmas, 1977. I remember distinctly opening that year’s gift from my grandmother, and was a little surprised to find the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack LP! She shipped everything from Texas (we lived in suburban So Cal at the time), and it was always a big deal when the box—everyone’s presents Christmas-wrapped inside—arrived. My parents would let me open it, and take out all the gifts and put them under the tree. She usually sent me something I really wanted, after consulting with my folks, as well as something I couldn’t appreciate at the time (she ran a little antique store, buying and refurbishing everything herself, and she sent me all of these ancient and somewhat creepy music boxes, which lived in my room).

1977 was the year of Star Wars, obviously, but there were few Star Wars toys to go around—Kenner’s Early Bird Certificate Package is now famous in the annals of geekdom. In retrospect, it’s possible grandma thought Saturday Night Fever was actually some sort of sci-fi epic: the name of the club in the movie was “2001 Odyssey,” after all, and that dance floor sure as hell looked like it came from the future. I also remember getting a Star Wars jigsaw puzzle—this awful bastard—and laying on the living room floor on Christmas night trying to finish the damn thing. (My mom had a board that was specifically used for jigsaw puzzles, believe it or not; it was chipped on one side, and I still remember the shape of the chip.) Did my grandma get that for me too? Did I listen to “Staying Alive” and “How Deep Is Your Love?” while exasperatedly trying to piece together the blackness of space?

MCKENNA: Even though I remember it mainly as a devastating blast of psychological white light, the only Christmas of which I can claim to have vivid memories is 1976: the Christmas when I received, inside a paper sack decorated with an image of Santa departing the lunar surface in something resembling the Apollo ascent stage, what would be my gospels: New English Library’s ‘Gift Book’ Strange World of Science Fiction and that year’s Space: 1999 annual.

With its unambiguous signage, uniforms to tell you what everyone did and things constantly going wrong no matter how hard you tried, Space: 1999‘s Moonbase Alpha looked like a place where I might feel at home—I already identified with the station’s perennially-frowning second-in-command, Paul Morrow (played by the spectacularly-named Prentis Hancock), a man who always looked as worried and uncertain about everything as I was. Inside the annual was a treasure chest of reassuring, festive titles like Mindprobe!, Brainsearch, and Be Curious – And Die!, disconcerting photos, and pages of child-friendly prose (“the pitch of vibration rose to a deafening scream and Koenig, Bergman and Kano fell to the floor, their hands clapped to their agonised ears”). If it’s not too ludicrous to talk about motifs in the context of cobbled-together tat produced to capitalize upon the credulousness of youngsters, the motifs of the 1976 Space: 1999 annual are delirium, loss, and death. Merry Christmas, children! NEL’s Strange World of Science Fiction, instead, was a ramshackle collection of fairly run-of-the-mill short SF stories held together with memorable illustrations by Jim Cawthorne (best-known for the comic adaptations of friend Michael Moorcock’s Elric books) and the enigmatic “R. Kipping,” which, like Space: 1999, invoked loneliness, confusion and the vastness of space.

I spent the rest of that Christmas holiday in front of the gas fire with these books, eating revolting sugared almonds and diligently internalizing the tropes that would inform and deform my future mental life: atomic mushroom clouds; rootlessness; incommunicability; enclosed environments, as fragile as they are reassuring; doubles; life as an uncontrollable careening through the unknowable; and hunky aquarians blasting blue werewolves with fingertip lasers. Pretty great Christmas, really.

GRASSO: When I think about other marquee gifts I received at Christmas—my first computer, a TI-99/4A, in 1981, and a Cobra Terror Drome in 1986—I try to remember the circumstances around opening them and setting them up—and my memory ends up just fading into ephemerality. Back at those ages of 6 and 11, they were the signal moments of my entire year. As a jaded 42-year-old, I can only conjure faint images of them sitting next to our tree. The things I remember better are the little gifts that have a deeper emotional value, like the copy of the book of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos I got from my dad’s cousin on Christmas Eve, 1982 (the same year as this photo, in fact). Our family’s Christmas tradition was rock-solid: Christmas Eve was for going to visit cousins and my godfather’s family, while Christmas morning was for gifts and the afternoon for grandparents to come visit us. As grandparents slowly passed away, the Christmas Day traditions fell apart, our table growing smaller and smaller.

But ultimately it’s not the toys and games that I remember best now. It’s things like the quirky ornaments we’d hang on our tree, from the McDonald’s ornaments inspired by Norman Rockwell (wow, again from 1982!) to the funky, disco-styled 1970s zodiacal ornament (Leo for young Mike, obsessed with science and the occult equally, just as today), not to mention the ornaments I was forced to make as grade school projects (you can see a construction paper tree on the tree in the photo above). It’s my dad refusing to bow to 1980s trends and shift to white mini-lights, keeping our strings of huge ’70s multi-colored bulbs working somehow, right into the 2010s. It’s the texture of the glittery faux-popcorn garland as my mom and I reached into the cardboard boxes, cold from the attic, hanging it on the tree, me handling the side closest to the window because I could fit back there. They all seem so tacky now, but back then they just spoke of home, of tradition, of safety and security.

ROBERTS: I remember the quirky things too, Mike, much more than the gifts. I know I got Kenner’s Death Star for Christmas in 1978, for instance, but I don’t remember opening it. I do remember very specific images of glittery Christmas cards, peppermint-colored ornaments, the stuffed Santa that sat on the rocking chair, the bronze angel chimes, the different robes my mom wore while she was opening presents. It’s funny how going through the gifts I remember (those I got and those I asked for) illuminate the course of my life: from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica to G.I. Joe and Mack Bolan, from disco records to post-punk records, from comic books to modernist novels, from Pez dispensers to Zippo lighters. We Are the Mutants is, in its way, an opportunity for me to rediscover all of these moments in a new light, to analyze objectively what were extremely personal, life-changing moments. The site’s tagline, by the way—“sifting the disregarded remains of the old world”—is from William James, who described the humanities as “the sifting of human creations.” In my mind, that’s what we’re doing here. And I may as well say that I’m damn proud of the work we’ve done, and grateful as hell that I met both of you.

If I had to pick one Christmas gift that stands out above the rest, it’s my Schwinn Scrambler: silver with red mag wheels. I don’t remember the exact year—maybe 1981? I had asked for the bike the previous Christmas, but my parents couldn’t afford it, so they spruced up my old bike instead: new paint job, new tires, and so on. At some point during the year one of the rich kids in the neighborhood offered to buy my bike to use as a “junker.” He’d give me $20, but my Scrambler was almost $200. I took the deal, put the $20 down on the Scrambler, and continued to put money down as I did odd jobs for my dad and the neighbors. (Try explaining the concept of “layaway” to a teenager today, friends.) And I went without a bike, which was a terrible blow to a So Cal kid in 1981. Anyway, when I came downstairs that Christmas morning, there she was, parked in front of the tree. My parents had paid off my (large) balance. I jumped the shit out of that bike!

MCKENNA: As you both note, it’s the ephemera that sticks in the mind more than any memory of actually opening a present or pulling a cracker: the tacky glamor of the mass-produced tat we hung on the tree, the ungainly fairy lights glowing like instrument panels in the darkness, the exoticism of the annual box of Week End chocolates. Christmas in the North of England was a pretty dark and blustery affair—more Wuthering Heights than It’s a Wonderful Life. The atmosphere was dramatic and pagan, and Santa a capricious supernatural entity, kindly and vindictive by turns, who instantly seized back your presents if you were foolish enough to catch sight of him and who was merciless towards the badly-behaved: without wishing to evoke the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, I actually did know kids who woke up on Christmas morning to a lump of coal because they’d been naughty. And, like Kelly, I can trace my mental development through the presents over the years: the boxes of second-hand toys and books gathered from jumble sales that my nana and grandad gave me, the Cyborg in 1977, Alien, the Illustrated Story in 1979, a devastating little anthology of science fiction with Terry Oakes cover art in 1980.

1981 was the Terminal Christmas for me, though. A first viewing of The Man Who Fell to Earth on BBC1 a few days previous had radicalized my Bowie obsession, and I’d spent Christmas Eve trying to recreate the illustration that had accompanied it in the Radio Times. My innovative medium? Blu Tack on glass. Under the tree the next morning were a copy of Ultravox’s Vienna, a Casio VL-tone, and 10 quid’s worth of book and record tokens (as well as a copy of credibility-annihilating novelty single “Blackboard Jumble” by the Barron Knights). I spent the tokens on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and a book of Bowie sheet music that I didn’t know how to read, presuming—mistakenly—that within days I would somehow learn and start cranking out Sound and Vision. This peak of consumption, zeitgeist, and life-altering stimuli felt as though I’d crossed a threshold of some kind, and it could obviously never be repeated.

As Mike says, it’s odd to look back at all this with a little more awareness of the immense privilege that I enjoyed growing up in a time and place that could allow a child this kind of immersion in his personal dreams and obsessions.

GRASSO: As we’ve journeyed through all of these pieces of our pasts over the last year and change, I’ve experienced a profound ambivalence. A childhood spent deep in the throes of Cold War consumerism feels shockingly prophetic for where we are in 2017. Plastic toys, played with for a year or two in the mid-’80s, then stored up in the attic, are now massive global tentpole media properties. As Kelly mentioned, we want to derive some meaning from the detritus of our privileged childhoods. The memories of the love I had for these… things as a kid has largely faded. The memories that matter today all have to do with people: the family that gave me love and supported my interests and hobbies, the friends with whom I played these toys and games, and the shared memories with all of you who’ve commented and written to us in response to our articles.

2017’s been a rough year for everyone I know. We Are The Mutants has been one of the few bright spots, at least for me. Taking the time to plumb these deep, abiding memories and extract something new and maybe even profound, offering a new perspective on the culture we grew up suffused in? That’s been the true gift, and we’ve tried to share it with you all year long. I am hoping that the lessons we’ve managed to sift from these discarded bits of culture, the mistakes from which we hopefully can learn, will result in a much better 2018. And that’s our wish for all of you: a healthy, safe, and happy holiday season, and a better New Year ahead. We’ll keep trying to blaze a trail to that better world by taking stock of our past. We hope All You Mutants stay with us on that journey.

6 thoughts on “Quirky Ghosts and Marquee Gifts: Memories of Christmas Past

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