Having been raised in a family of migrant farm workers, I never adopted the commercialization of Christmas. We were poor, and I didn't expect to receive many gifts. I certainly couldn't give many if they cost more than a few dollars.
Still, I experienced the true spirit of Christmas as a child, and the beauty of that experience has stayed with me over the years.
In 1953, when I was 8 years old, my parents began having serious marital problems. Because I was the oldest of five kids and strong enough to work in the fields, I traveled that year with my father from Fort Lauderdale to Exmore, Va., to Dover, Del., and to Long Island, N.Y.
During the yuletide season that year, we were living in an all-black migrant camp outside Dover. As I recall, our camp had two rows of wooden shacks facing each other with eight families and about 14 children, from toddlers to young teenagers.
We were there to lay irrigation lines for soybeans. The work, which began each day at first light and ended at sunset, was grueling. But I don't want to leave the impression that we were unhappy kids. We mostly were happy, traveling to different states and towns, romping in the woods, fishing, reading comic books and telling stories about ghosts and monsters around camp fires. No one went hungry. The wife of our crew chief prepared breakfast and dinner for a modest fee. If we were short of money, we ate on credit.
Our major problem was that our parents rarely had disposable dollars. As Christmas approached, our parents made it clear that the kids wouldn't get many gifts. They didn't have to tell us. We knew. Life on the road in black labor camps during the 1950s was a stern teacher of reality, and we resigned ourselves to focusing on the necessities — food and water, a roof over our heads and a drivable vehicle.
On Christmas Eve, all of the families gathered around the community fire and the tree someone had dragged in from the woods. The tree didn't have lights, but a few women trimmed it with angels and stars made of construction and crepe papers. We sang the few carols we knew.
Before bedtime, my father handed me a package wrapped in newspaper pages from the Baltimore Sun. I was not to open it until daybreak even though I knew what was inside: the three Phantom comic books I wanted.
I was awakened the next morning by horns blowing. I jumped from my bunk and went outside. Others came from their shacks, too. Dozens of cars and pickups were in the parking lot, their horns blasting. Several white adults and more than a dozen children — each child carrying a gift — emerged from their vehicles and marched toward the camp entrance singing a carol.
Once the group was inside the camp, a man in a Santa costume stepped forward and yelled, "Merry Christmas!" He said they had brought gifts for us. Then, the most amazing thing happened: One by one, a white child called out the name of a black child and handed the black child a gift-wrapped shoebox. A smiling boy about my age called my name, and I nervously walked to him.
"Merry Christmas, William," he said and handed me a shoebox.
Wishing us "Merry Christmas" a final time, our visitors drove away, waving as they went. Stunned and excited, we found places to sit and open our shoeboxes. I'll never forget mine. The lid had the image of Buster Brown and Tige, Buster's mischievous mutt. Inside were a harmonica, a pair of socks, an assortment of hard candies, a bag of green Cat Eye shooting marbles, pencils, an eraser and a kaleidoscope, my favorite of all.
The other kids were just as happy. It was a grand Christmas morning in our remote labor camp.
I learned years later that the visiting children attended schools in and around Dover, the man in the Santa costume was a principal and the other adults were teachers and parents. Our crew chief's wife had secretly worked with the schools on the project, which was how the other kids knew our names and appropriate gifts.
For sentimental reasons, I kept that Buster Brown shoebox for years, using it to store envelopes, stamps, pens, pencils and my beloved kaleidoscope. I eventually lost it during one of our many treks up and down the East Coast.