I grew up in a farming community in what was then a fairly rural area of Maryland. I don't remember that any of the kids I went to school with were from 'well-off' families. Oh, I suppose some of the farms were bigger and more upscale than others (we had a relatively small one ourselves), but most of the people were pretty much in the same economic group: each family had one car, we went to town once a week, our household goods and farm equipment (and the few 'extras') were bought courtesy of Sears & Roebuck or Montgomery Wards through the catalogs. And just as nobody seemed really wealthy, nobody seemed really poor, either.
I went to a small country school, with just six classrooms (one for each grade) and a multi-purpose cafeteria / auditorium / gym. My third-grade class was packed like sardines, since new housing had seen more people moving into the area. Consequently, there were almost forty kids in our room.
Around the first week of December each class would decorate a large box, with a slot in the top, to use as a 'mailbox.' We would 'send' homemade Christmas cards to each other. We also drew names - I don't remember calling it 'Secret Santa' but I suppose that's as good a description as any. You'd go up to the teacher's desk, one by one, and pull a slip of paper out of a box or bowl, then show it to the teacher, so she'd know whose name you had. (None of this trading slips business!)
The last day of school before break we would have a party. Parents would send in treats, like cupcakes or home-baked cookies. The teacher would distribute the 'mail,' passing around the cards that had been posted in our Christmas mailbox. Then the most exciting part of all: handing out the presents.
I couldn't tell you whose name I had that year. My mother probably helped me pick out something from Murphy's or Woolworth's. I know they distributed the parcels and told us we had to wait until they had all been given out before any of us opened them. Oh, the anticipation! Picking them up and shaking them and maybe, just maybe, you could see a bit of it.
The signal to begin: the tearing off of wrappings with a flurry of ribbon and paper. Around me there were boxes of 64 Crayolas and small Colorforms sets and Magic Slates, all the fun things that are so neat when you're a child.
My gift? I remember it well - it was a checkers set (draughts, in English style). A small gameboard that folded in half, with twelve red wooden checkers and twelve black wooden ones. We had all gone checkers-mad that year and it was perfect. I finally had checkers of my own, because I didn't have one at home and the two our classroom owned were always in use. No more waiting to play!
Who gave it to me? Now, that was the funny part. My name was on the tag, but no 'From' was written on it.
One by one we stood up in front of the class, to display our gift and announce who it was from and publicly thank them.
I took my turn and said 'I got a checkers game - but I don't know who it's from, so I don't know who to thank!' Nobody said a word, and some of the kids kind of looked around at one another, to see if someone would shyly announce 'Me, I'm the one who drew your name.' But no one said anything. The teacher must have known who gave it to me, but she didn't speak out, and finally she said 'Well, you'll have to ask around and find out who to thank, won't you?'
If I had been a little older, a little quicker in thought, it might have dawned on me to track each classmate's gift-giver and by process of elimination figure out who it was. But it was a big class, and many had already been shown, and I didn't come up with the idea. The friends sitting nearest me and I puzzled over the tag, trying to figure out the handwriting, but it had probably been written by an adult, so that was no help. I didn't think to approach the teacher.
Why didn't the child who gave me the gift want to acknowledge it? No, I don't think it was because s/he hadn't wanted to give 'me' a present; I don't think the recipient's identity ever came into it. In later years, I realized the likely explanation is - they were ashamed.
The board wasn't torn or damaged, but it had obviously been well-used. Most of the checkers didn't match. They were different sizes, and a couple of them looked as though they were wooden disks that had been painted to fit in with the other red or black checkers. It wasn't in a box: the checkers were in a little box, but the board itself - the game itself - wasn't boxed.
The small box containing the checkers had been placed on the folded board, then the whole wrapped in Christmas paper. I don't remember for sure - it has been fifty years, after all, and some details have been lost in the excitement and delight of the moment - but I think the paper might have been reused. I couldn't even say if there had been any ribbon (and at that time, I had never seen pre-made or 'store-bought' bows), but I remember thinking whichever classmate gave me the gift had also wrapped it him- or herself.
Keep in mind, though, that at eight, I didn't see second-hand checkers - I saw a checkers set of MY.VERY.OWN!
In my grade there were three or four kids who sort of came and went: their families were tenant farmers, and from one year to the next, one season to the next, they might move two or three times from one farm to another. Usually they were in our same school district, but occasionally they would end up going to a different elementary. And although nobody in our area was 'poor' in the sense of homeless or living on charity, I suppose these families had the least income. They were what we would call 'cash poor.' Self-sustaining people, like us making their own clothes and home-canning what they grew, but maybe having to use more spit and baling wire than the rest of us to keep things together.
Someone in my class drew my name and didn't have enough money - their family didn't have enough money - to spend on a store-bought present, even one from the five-and-ten. I am pretty sure I know who drew my name - we'll call him 'Jimmy' - and when I look back I find it likely he gave me his own checkers set.
No, I hadn't seen it at school - he hadn't brought it in to use - but he was pretty darn good at checkers and I figure he had more practice at it than just in recesses. He was the youngest of several kids, and maybe he came up with enough pieces (even then, wooden ones would have been somewhat outdated compared to plastic) to fill out a set of twenty-four, with a board that had come out of a gameset to which the box had long since been lost.
It was important to him to belong, to not have to admit that his family couldn't afford a present, to not have to miss the party or come up short. And though I'm sure our teacher would have come to the rescue if she'd been asked, it would have felt like the depths of humiliation to admit being unable to provide at least a small gift.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this story? I don't know. I think of it at some point every year around Christmas. I still have a couple of the little wooden checkers, though the rest have gotten lost over the years and the gameboard long since fell to pieces. I never think of that present without all over again feeling the thrill of having my very own checkers - there never has been a sense of disappointment, or inferiority, no feeling that I hadn't gotten as nice a gift as the others or that I was somehow short-changed.
Maybe Jimmy - or whoever drew my name - gave the best present he could. If I feel bad about anything, it's that he might not, must not, have thought it was good enough to put his name on the tag. I told him then, in front of the whole class, how really pleased I was to have my own set of checkers. I'll say it again:
Whoever gave me a checkers game at Mechanicsville Elementary for Christmas, 1960 - thank you. It has remained one of the best memories of over fifty Christmases. Of all the gifts I have been given at school parties and thru 'Secret Santas' and drawing names, it is one of the few I remember well, and with genuine fondness.