I’ve been thinking about technology (as is evident from my last blog), and I’ve been thinking about Christmas. We have eight grandchildren, and Christmas wish lists abound with technology-related items. For the younger children, Santa will bring lots of plastic gadgets which light up and make noise and require frequent battery changes. Santa’s helpers would do well to buy stock in Duracell. For the older kids and adult children, the requests often involve gift cards so they can replenish their games (or whatever). It all got me thinking about how Christmas has changed over my lifetime. I found it a useful exercise to go back through the years (71 in my case) and try to remember what Christmas was like and how technology has affected it over the years.
My early Christmases were simple – in retrospect, we had few presents and little technology. There were the lights on the tree and the impossible task of determining which bulb was causing the whole string to go out. There were the amazing bubbling bulbs, and the cardboard villages with lights in each little house. (Why weren’t there more fires?) An old electric train chugged around the base of the Christmas tree. Presents were not complex or technical – dolls, sleds, cowboy outfits. If the toy moved or played music, it was because you wound it up. The highlight for me – up to the age of about eight, when we moved far enough away to end the tradition – was an extended family carol sing on Christmas Eve. All the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at one of our homes, and people would take turns playing the piano while we sang every verse of all the carols, which were printed in little booklets that the banks gave out in those days. No presents, lots of food, not much drinking (for the most part that was a tee-totaling crowd). Pleasant memories though. Christmas morning was exciting but not extravagant, and not shared with anyone but immediate family.
My first Christmas present that involved any technology at all was a wristwatch in my teen years – not too exciting. But this was followed the next year by a transistor radio – a radio I could listen to all by myself. It only got three stations but was a joy to keep under my pillow and listen to surreptitiously when my parents thought I was long asleep. In a way, the transistor radio was a turning point. It was personal technology, personal entertainment. In an era when homes had only one TV (black and white in our case), one phone, one stereo, and one radio (in the kitchen), it enabled my teenage self to sequester in at least one tiny respect. But transistors (and then the far smaller transistors on silicon chips) were not done with us.
As a young married adult, I longed for a color television. We bought one for Christmas in 1976, just in time to watch Centennial and Roots. For reception, we had only an antenna with a rotor – which was high technology in those days. For those of you who never had a rotor, it was an electrical gadget that enabled you – on a limited basis – to turn the antenna on your roof from inside the house. Each channel (all three of them) had a preferred setting, and much time was spent watching a snowy screen and trying various locations while listening to the motor on the rotor hum. No cable for several more years. With the advent of the new color TV, however, we moved the black and white television to the bedroom, which began the proliferation of screens in the house.
When I had children, toys with batteries were more common – talking dolls, beeping robots. The sea change, however, came in about 1983 when, since we now had a personal computer in the house (which I did not know how to use), my eldest got a copy of King’s Quest for Christmas. For the rest of the day we could not tear his seven-year-old body away from the computer – except with force (parents) and tears (child) – for a family Christmas dinner.
The link between Christmas and technology has snowballed over the decades, with capitalism keeping right up with the trend. In fact, I would say that Christmas has become a well-meaning celebration of capitalism. What was once a tradition rich in ritual has been stripped to its most efficient return on investment. It has been compounded, in our and many other families, by our adult children foregoing church. When visiting at Christmas, we bundle up for the Christmas Eve service and ask if anyone wants to go with us – and for that moment only we have a completely “silent night” as everyone tries to avoid eye contact. So be it. Their Christmas ritual now includes a compulsory zoom event where we watch the kids tear open dozens of packages on Christmas morning. I love the children and grandchildren, but the holiday has started to make me shudder.
I must pause to mention another truth, however. My own children’s best Christmas memories include and cherish the technology I abhor. I have lived long enough to see my son try to recapture the Christmas magic of King’s Quest for his own children. So it goes.
Technology has come to bear on Christmas in other ways, of course. On the bright side, we can stream Christmas movies and concerts without commercials. But we are not sitting near our extended community when we watch them. And maybe that is the main thing that has happened. We no longer do things as families, as communities, as a people. Technology can cater to the individual and it does. From King’s Quest to virtual reality, we think we don’t need others anymore. Maybe that’s true if we are determined to “do what we want,” but maybe we need others in order to figure out what it is that we really want.
I know I sound like a nostalgic old lady. I am. When I tell my children and grandchildren about these old Christmases, they look at me with pity. In truth, I can remember my own mother telling me that Christmas used to mean just some candy and a piece of fruit in her stocking, and I found her story hard to believe. How could Santa be so stingy? Maybe it is just a normal disjunction between the generations. However, I am determined to spend my remaining Christmases in the way that means something to me. So, I’ll attend Christmas concerts in person, go to church on Christmas Eve, and burn real candles. And I’ll rant a little. Thanks for listening.
I have written a number of Christmas stories over the years, and if you are looking for something appropriate to the season, you might try “Cookie Crumbs” or “Epiphany.” Or look at one of my old blogs about Christmas. And if we can’t do anything about “Peace on Earth” after all these years, let’s at least try to find a little inner peace.