I wrote this four years ago on Thanksgiving, and though it isn't 'new', it will still do for today. I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny,
Then a ha’ penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny,
Then God bless you!
My grandmother used to say this to my sister and I when the days grew colder and cranberry sauce moved to the front of the supermarket aisles. As we got used to the lyrics through the years (despite not really knowing what they meant), she would replace the words with variations of putting hundred dollar bills in Grannie’s hat. (No, that is not a typo. Yes, we really do spell it this way and I didn’t make a hideous possessive apostrophe catastrophe.)
Talitha and I went to a Montessori school for many years. I liked it, despite the bad rap that it gets from more formidable anal-retentive education fanatics. I’m under the impression that all people learn differently, and that different learning styles require different learning environments. But I digress. I’m not writing a paper about education. Back to the fat goose!
At Montessori Academy we shared the lunch table with some really interesting kids. They were post-hippy children, conservative children, homeschooled then Mommy get a job children, music industry children, and then the occasional oddball like my sister and I who were none of these things and yet all of these things. Well, in the midst of all this alternative learning, we got to sing all manner of songs. We lifted our sweet, slightly off-key soprano voices to songs that I’m quite sure are not sung at other schools. We might have sung about illegal drug use and the evils of free economy. We also sang about Hanukah and Christmas, despite that those songs specifically mention religious beliefs. If the Hindus had a song that could be accompanied by a guitar, we would have sung it, because that is the kind of environment it was.
We also learned a song that talked about putting a penny in the old man’s hat. Like many of the songs I learned under the tutelage of Mrs. Melton, I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the simple tune. I know the states in alphabetical order and the state tree of Tennessee because of her little jingles. Symbolically, she linked hands with my mother’s mother and taught me about a goose getting fat. For some unknown reason, I needed to understand something about a ha’ penny (which can also be translated as half or hay, depending on your version).
It is only tradition and repetition (are they the same things?) that causes my thoughts to turn to this little verse at the time of year when cider and hot chocolate are added to my daily diet. I think of Grannie and Mrs. Melton and, for some reason, the goose that is getting fat. My dad made us eat goose one year. He was beyond delighted that we had a Christmas goose. I wish I didn’t remember the smell. Is it any wonder that poultry frightens me?
Well, I’ve been thinking about that ditty because of the time of year, but also because of the climate of the country. Where there once was plenty, there now is not. We cannot yet claim famine, as that would be dramatic in the extreme. But for the first time in a long time, Americans are thinking that it might not be a good idea to just ‘throw it on the card’ and deal with it later. Really, it is a good thing. And yet, like the first few days of going on a diet, it really hurts.
Austin and I put away a bit of money each month for Christmas. It isn’t much fun to do in January, but it feels great in November. I usually start making lists in September, listing potential gift ideas, approximate prices, favorite colors, sizes, and anything else that might be pertinent to choosing The Perfect Gift. I compare online, noting price difference, shipping options, bonus buys, warranty information…everything. I write it all down. I usually forget where the various lists go, but I write it down nonetheless. I don’t prepare so much as prepare to prepare.
So in theory, we were prepared for The Giving Season. And then, as we looked faaaar into the future, we saw a problem. Austin’s younger sister is getting married in January, and it goes without saying that we will be there. Be it fate or fuel, the prices for airline transportation have positively skyrocketed. Gone are the days of the $99 one-way fare between Nashville and Phoenix. We watched fares for awhile. I stalked the various airline websites until I found what appeared to be an unbeatable deal. And really, I haven’t seen a better price since. But at 1,600.00 USD, our Christmas fund was more than depleted. It was shell-shocked, weather-worn, and completely gone.
On one hand, I was relieved. We obviously wouldn’t be able to buy Christmas presents this year. There would be no way to buy small tokens for all those whom we usually give presents. And so…we would simply have to be our own gift. Not because we wanted to be cheesy, but because it was all we had to offer. The plane tickets were to be our gifts to ourselves, our kids, and our family. Austin and I told ourselves that it truly would be enough to sit with our various family members and have chocolate fondue. We could watch movies, play games, sit in the hot tub, and laugh, drink, and be merry. I have to admit that in my head I saw us tucked into a sleigh, covered with ermine blankets and happily ignoring the raw red cherries that the icy wind was painting onto our cheeks. Scratchy mittens, soft scarves, heavy boots filled with winter dew….silver tankards of spiced ale, hot cocoa with lovely pools of melting cream and marshmallows…warm breath blown onto cold, chapped hands. Yes, this would be a Christmas to remember!
On the other hand, I looked behind me at the Horrible Christmas Of 1991. Luckily, I’ve blocked out most of it. But let’s just say that all I got was a black hat. And that doesn’t symbolize anything. I got a black hat. And though as a parent I understand, appreciate and sympathize with how much harder it is to provide for your kids than they can possibly imagine, I also….got.a.black.hat. That might have been the defining moment of my future gift giving issues. (Although there are many other memories vying for that distinction) I’ll be the first to say that Christmas is not about presents. But I’ll also be the first to hold up a black hat if you tell me that it doesn’t matter if you don’t give your kids a Christmas present. (Yes, for the sake of argument, I did actually receive a present. But I challenge you unless you have ever been the proud Christmas recipient of a single black hat.) I must admit that I saw my home in the holiday season of 2008, cold and sparsely decorated. There were lights on the tree, but they had burnt out weeks before and therefore just looked like cable wire wrapped around the forlorn little plastic branches. (Sigh) Crusty pieces of days old bread…sad little eyes that came down to find that Santa didn’t visit them…instant cocoa. This would be a very sad Christmas.
We sat down with the kids and had a lovely little talk about What Makes Christmas Important. We explained that although we have (had) Christmas money, we needed to spend it (and more, don’t tell Dave Ramsey) on tickets to fly to Phoenix. Being the sensitive, lovely little souls that they are, Moira and Sabra agreed that it would be just fine to forego the usual shiny package swap. Actually, they were downright giddy about visiting family that they miss so much. To be fair, Sabra still probably has no idea what we are doing for Christmas and very well might be pissed off when her stocking hangs empty on Christmas Morning.
Moira is very very very very sensitive about every every every every thing. And no, I’m not over exaggerating. As with most of us, her best asset is also her worst. In this case, sensitivity came in handy. She put my mind at ease by almost over reasoning. After all, she soothed my troubled soul, family is more important than a new toy. She would rather be hugged by her aunts than get More Plastic Crap in her stocking.
As the days went on and she had reassured herself, her dad, her sister, me, her animals, her grandparents, her teachers, and anyone else who would listen, I did feel better about the whole Grrrr I’m A Bad Parent Who Isn’t Going to Give Her Kids A Present This Year Issue. And I also started putting away my change, Austin’s change, pennies I found on the street, and even dollars that should have been spent on flour and eggs. My plan was (and is) to split the money a week before Christmas and buy each of the girls one present. That way they will have something to open, but will also remember that presents aren’t the most important thing about the holiday. They will see family, sing the lyrics of old carols, and remember that the day is about so much more than can ever be understood by the human heart.
Well, I’m sorry to say that I have gone a bit off course. I did mean to talk about the kids and presents and my ridiculous mental images both bad and good. But if you will excuse me for a few paragraphs more, I’ll attempt to tie this up and even curl the ends for you.
When we talked to our family and friends about this season and the fact that we would be giving them a hug and a warm cuppa but little else, we were shocked, sad, and yet oddly happy that almost everyone we know is in the same boat. Shocked because it is just like us (me) to not notice other people and what their situation is. Sad because it isn’t exactly fun to know that everyone else is staring at pennies on the street and wondering if they should become a bounty hunter for the holidays. Oddly happy because we weren’t alone, they weren’t alone; we were all facing the same reshaping of a most beloved holiday. We were all going to have to be creative and content and that was just the end of it.
All the while, in the ipod of my mind, played the song about the goose and the hat.
I asked my mom if she knew what it meant. After all, she is a good resource on All Things Strange in Appalachia. Surely she would hold the key to the extreme wisdom of hay pennies and fat geese.
She said no, she didn’t really have such a key. It was just an old saying that probably was self-explanatory. This made me mad because I hate it when things aren’t complex. If you are wondering why I don’t like you, now you know. I love hidden meanings, deep ponderous thoughts that jump out at you like a 3D picture after you have mentally stared them down for hours.
True to my nature, I planned on thinking about the overly simple proverb at a later date. I have a list in my purse that tells me to look up the history of the saying, to find who penned it first and why. I haven’t done so yet. As I sit here typing, I have no internet to help me out with this task. So I’m going to go out on a limb and interpret it for myself (and for you, the always patient reader).
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Well, that really does have to be obvious. It sets the tone, gives us an idea of what is going on. I might say that ‘Christmas is coming, I am drinking cocoa’ or ‘Christmas is coming, Target is getting busy’ or maybe ‘Christmas is coming, my neighbors are very tacky in their choice of seasonal ornamental lawn art’.
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat
For me, this conjures images of red buckets and cheap Santa suits that ring bells and tell you to put your money IN THE BUCKET! Some people get irritated by them, but I don’t. It might be because I’m better than everyone else or because I simply like the (sadly) seasonal idea of helping other people. It could also be that my mom used to work for the Salvation Army and I feel somewhat connected to those cold, tired bell ringers. I don’t know if they get paid to stand there in the slush and compromise the integrity of their hearing by incessantly clanging the brass instrument. Even if they do, it isn’t much. And they do it because it hopefully helps people. So how could I interpret this for the modern reader? Well, as I have noted, it means to give a little bit to people who need it. We really should remember those less fortunate all year round, but we don’t. We are horribly selfish (or at least I am) on the 4th of July when we buy fireworks and there are people who haven’t had dinner in several days. But for some reason, the glittering, all consuming magic of Christmas makes us look not with pity, but with charity and understanding on those around us. So…I’m going to go with ‘Please put a five dollar bill in the Salvation Army bucket’.
If you haven’t got a penny, then a ha’ penny will do
More of the same, except that this allows that perhaps the giver is herself in need. Interesting juxtapose here. The giver is asked to give, but the giver is remembered as a fellow traveler. Perhaps the giver has had dinner this week, but maybe her kids don’t have shoes that fit or a coat that reaches all the way to their wrists. It also reassures us that whatever you have will be sufficient. If you don’t have a penny, even a portion of that will be accepted and appreciated. No sacrifice is insignificant, despite how the sacrifice feels. ‘If you haven’t got a five dollar bill, then a few quarters will do.’
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny, then God bless you!
Well, if you don’t have a few spare quarters to put in the red bucket, then you have some much bigger problems at hand than not being able to help others. You cannot, at this time, help yourself. And for that, you need simply to be blessed. Hopefully that blessing will come in such a way that you find yourself warm, fed, and loved. I know that overall our country looks down on those without money. I whine and complain about not being able to buy the things I want or do what I want to do when I want to do it. But I have always been warm, always fed, always loved. My sister and I used to change this line to ‘if you haven’t got a ha’ penny then get out of here!’ This still makes me laugh, though it also makes a wee bit sheepish. I prove my own point. So here’s what I would say: ‘If you haven’t got a few quarters to give, then God bless you. And here’s where God will start: I’ll give you a few quarters of my own.’
So as I cross this little article with red ribbon and knot it overtop green shiny paper, hear this:
In a time of plenty, in a time of want, in a time of uncertainty and yet determination, I’m getting nothing for Christmas. And I have to say, I haven’t ever felt better. I’m still looking for pennies on the sidewalk, because Sabra has made it very clear that she wants a black baby doll from Santa and I am rather under the impression that she should have such a gift.
I cannot say that I fully understand what is going on around me in my country. People are going insane and building bunkers in their backyards. Wall Street apparently sucks, though I was never good at math anyways so I don’t claim to have any idea of what anybody is talking about. My sister’s husband is going to sleep somewhere in the Middle East without watching Sponge Bob with his daughter. My husband’s father still won’t be here this season, and that fact is still astonishingly surprising.
But I have what I need to do what I need to do. I feed my kids food, I put them to bed in a bed, and I send them to school with a coat that fits. I don’t have these luxuries because I deserve them or because I’ve worked harder than people who don’t have their own bed.
I’ve been the old man with a hat, and so many people have given me their pennies.
Hopefully, I can always remember to do the same. It might be a five dollar bill; it might be a few quarters. It might even be a Styrofoam cup of instant cocoa. What is important is that I give, no matter how the sacrifice feels.
And now this package is all wrapped, tied and adorned. I’ll put it under my tree to look at as the season progresses.
I hope you do the same.