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Now, the best kind of journalism: Christmas stories

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming of Hinkley’s ultimate wisdom on all things journalism for a bit of yuletide nostalgia:

My great-grandfather, Winfred “Friendly Fred” Hinkley, is my earliest Christmas memory. An auctioneer by trade, he wore a three-piece suit and a fedora every day I knew him. I once saw him mow his lawn in a denim three-piece suit. He tooled around town in a Cadillac or a Ford Model T. He had gold teeth and a groomed moustache that curled at the ends. Visit the Cracker Barrel in Battle Creek and there’s a picture of him in his blue tux and top hat behind the hostess stand.

When I was 5 or so, he gave my brother and me a bag of walnuts and a nut-cracker for Christmas. I don’t know why a 5-year-old would be excited about walnuts, but I was.

***

We were very poor then, my mom, brother, and me living with my aunt and cousin in a small, two-bedroom apartment. We couldn’t afford a tree. Our only decoration was a nutcracker I’d made in school by gluing colored construction paper onto one of those old Tootsie Roll tubes that doubled as a piggy bank when the candy was gone.

Mom couldn’t afford wrapping paper, either. When we woke on Christmas morning, all of our presents were on the table, next to the nutcracker, under a sheet. Mom and Aunt Sylvia just pulled back the sheet to reveal the presents.

I don’t remember what I got, but I remember feeling joy and magic.

***

A few years later, we spent Christmas with my grandparents who lived in South Carolina and went with them to visit family in Pennsylvania. My brother and I were terrified Santa would miss us in all the traveling.

My grandfather made a little stop sign with candy cane stripes on the stem that said, “Santa, STOP: Hinkley boys are here.” He put it at the end of the driveway at their home in South Carolina.

We had presents in Pennsylvania, in South Carolina, and back home in Battle Creek.

***

One Christmas season, my brother was in the hospital with appendicitis. He was waiting for surgery in a hospital bed with me and Mom gathered around. “Home Alone 2” was playing on the TV, and I kept laughing, which made my brother laugh, which hurt his inflamed appendix and made him cry.

***

I was 8 or so when my stepdad started a new tradition.

We spent Christmas morning at my mother’s parents’ house. A huge present was left for me under their tree. I ripped open the wrapping and revealed a box of Tupperware.

I feigned excitement.

“Well, open it up,” he said. “Maybe Santa just needed that extra box.”

Excited for real, I opened the box and saw a complete set of Tupperware inside. I feigned excitement once more.

“Check them out,” he said.

I dutifully opened one of the Tupperware pieces and found a Star Wars action figure inside. Excitement returned as I ripped open plastic container after plastic container and found Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Yoda, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, C3PO, R2-D2, all of them.

In the years after, my brother and I opened boxes of kitchenware, cereal, shoes, yard equipment, and other boring packaging that had real treasure inside.

***

We finally got a tree when I was 10, when my stepdad got his first Christmas bonus. He and Mom went to Horrock’s, a food and garden store downtown that dedicated its entire second floor to Christmas supplies around the holidays. We got a massive artificial tree and enough garland, ornaments, lights, and other miscellanea to decorate the North Pole.

We also got an 18-inch Santa tree-topper that Mom set on the counter as decoration. It had a motion sensor and sang Christmas carols when you walked past. We had a chow chow at the time, and he would walk by that thing in the middle of the night, setting off the music, and his barking would wake us all up.

After a couple nights of that, my stepdad moved the Santa to the top of the fridge. Still, our dog somehow set it off and barked us awake in the middle of the night, so we took the batteries out.

That Santa now sits on an end stand in my living room. It has no batteries.

***

Now that I’m raising my own family, we’re developing our own traditions: decorating the house and raising the tree in early November, Pillsbury’s orange cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning, my son’s stocking almost as long as he is tall, and my personal favorite: annual trips to Frankenmuth for the Bavarian Inn and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, where we each pick out a new ornament every year and my son gets a new Russian nesting doll.

The foundation for each of those new traditions was laid in the heart and humor of my Christmases past.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.