I'm thrilled to welcome bestselling author John Grogan, author of the hilarious and heartfelt memoirs Marley and Me and The Longest Trip Home to my Open House! Just like those books, his post is simultaneously hysterically funny and very poignant. My mother is also great wrap re-user as well, and I save bows like nobody's business. But I don't think either one of us approaches the thriftiness of John's Santa growing up. And I love how Santa inspired John and his siblings to re-use not just paper, but the actual gifts themselves in years of regifting. Read on and prepare to be seriously entertained.
I don’t know about the Santa who dropped down your chimney when you were a kid, but mine was definitely a cheapskate.
It’s not that Santa did not bring my brothers and sister and me lots of nice toys, but he clearly was looking to save a nickel wherever he could. The most obvious place was in the wrapping-paper department. The other kids in the neighborhood reported their gifts arriving in brand-new, crisp, shiny paper. Ours came wrapped in paper salvaged from holidays past. Not one holiday past but several. Some of it looked like it had come from the first Roosevelt administration. The paper was as soft and supple as well-worn sheepskin, creased and crinkled and mottled by a myriad of old tape tears.
Same story with the bows, which had long ago lost their ability to stick to packages, and many of which had gradually been crushed flat. Santa didn’t care. He’d use them anyway, taping them in place. Year after year, the same paper, bows and ribbons resurfaced like some yuletide magic act.
Another place Santa found savings was in his gift tags. No store-bought cards for our Santa. He was way cleverer than that. Santa would use pinking sheers to artistically cut up the previous year’s holiday cards, repurposing them into fancy little tags on which he would write our names and sign it “From Santa.” Some years, I would find one of Santa’s tags from an earlier year with one of my sibling’s names crossed out and mine written in. Santa recycled everything!
The Santa who visited our house each Christmas morning was definitely a penny pincher, but perhaps he was something more – an early eco-warrior with a generous heart matched only by his desire to cut down on the vast amount of resources wasted each holiday after one brief use. With a ho ho ho, he reused, reduced, and recycled his merry little heart out.
It goes without saying that Santa’s behavior did not strike Mom and Dad as odd at all. They grew up in the Great Depression, my mother one of nine children being raised by a widow, and were famous for their ability to squeeze one more use out of all manner of consumables. Mom dried her teabags on the windowsill for a second brew; dad hung paper towels for repeat wipe-ups and could always find a second use for a bucket of soapy water. My parents saved mayonnaise jars and margarine tubs, and tied stubs
of string together until they had a piece long enough to be of use.
And into this household of full utility came a Santa of like sensibility, following the same frugal protocol. What were the chances of that? Honestly, it seemed a little fishy to me, but being a boy of limited intellectual curiosity, and worrying that if I asked too many questions the whole bloody gifts-down-the-chimney gravy train could come to a screeching halt, I never pursued it.
We kids got into the cheapskate holiday spirit, too. Early on, my sister discovered a trove of long-forgotten wedding presents gathering dust in the attic. Martini glasses, pottery, carving sets, appliances. It was like Macy’s without the price tags. When it came time to shop for Mom and Dad, we enterprising kids simply headed up the attic ladder to pick out whatever struck our fancy. I swear Mom got the same waffle iron six years in a row. No matter, she’d greet each re-gifting with the same fanfare. “Just what I wanted!” she’d exclaim, holding it up. “How did you know?” A few days later, back up in the attic it would go for another year.
Despite his cost-cutting habits, Santa always came through on what mattered: the gifts. Every year beneath our tree, which we cut ourselves from a local farm, would be piles of books and model airplanes and robots and globes and cowboy gear and official NASA space helmets and beginner microscopes. And every year, Santa would always gulp down the snack we left him: a selection of Mom’s homemade butter cookies and a bottle of Coke. (No boring glass of milk at the Grogan house!)
My two brothers, sister and I would come barreling down the stairs at an ungodly hour before dawn. Mom would get up with us, click on the tree lights, and exclaim in amazement: “Kids, look! He came! Santa really came!” She was as crazy about Santa Claus as we were. Then, as we descended on our piles, she couldn’t resist adding: “Now careful not to rip the paper. It still has a lot of good life in it.”
Part of Dad’s Christmas gift was sleeping in, which we all agreed he deserved considering Santa drafted him into late-night elf service in the dreaded “Assembly Required” department. When Dad finally came down to join us, we would open our gifts to each other, careful not to tear the paper – “Ah, a waffle iron!” – and then head off to morning Mass where the highlight was peeking into the manger to see the little plastic baby Jesus with sheep and mules sleeping around him. If we were lucky, there would be snow on the ground. If not, that was okay, too. It was Christmas and we were together, a family warm and happy and imbued with the magic of the season. Upon our return, the house would be filled with our gifts and the wondrous smells of Mom’s roasted turkey. Also with lots of laughter and, mostly, lots of love. Recycled wrapping paper or not, that is where the true meaning lies.