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How boomers created the magic of Christmas childhoods

It's A Wonderful life (1946) Photo: Contributed - Credit: Contributed

Reminiscing on her childhood, BONNIE GREER explains how the baby boomer generation were allowed to dream at Christmas.

Childhood – the one we have now – was invented for us baby boomers.

Edwardians and Victorians had childhoods too. But the boys back then were dressed as girls and the girls were dressed like little fairies. And before that, children looked like miniature old people for the most part.

My generation are called baby boomers because our parents came out of the Second World War young, grateful and determined to have a family life free of conflict and anxiety.

Many achieved this. Some did not.

But somewhere in their calculations and in their hearts, that thing called ‘childhood’ was going to be remade for us. And it was going to last as long as possible.

No matter our economic circumstances, each of us grew up with more stuff than our grandparents and parents ever had. We were full to bursting with the complete joy of doing the things that little kids do: Chiefly, messing around; not being hot-housed, for example. We had none of the anxiety that Millennials now have in ‘achieving’.

We little kids achieved nothing but permission to be children and have the run of the place.

We were spoiled and mouthy and always seeking our way and our own path.

We still are and we still do. And while the current Millennial sneer “OK boomer” is appropriate much of the time, those who use it also have to understand that being young and being a kid was our business and our stock-in-trade. And, also, that Christmas was really the celebration of us. And we rolled.

I did not figure out Santa Claus until embarrassingly late in the game of childhood, even though I got the joke from the African American comic who said on TV that no white man would come into our neighbourhood after dark.

A part of me could not see, either, that at Christmas I was dreaming – extending a part of my fantasy world into a season during which I simply could not see myself.

Our parents made the almost fatal mistake one year of leaving beautiful black dolls under the Christmas tree for my sisters and me.

When I think about them now, I can see how beautiful they were, how expensive they must have been back then and what my parents must have gone through to get them.

But I wanted a Shirley Temple doll with porcelain skin, golden curls and dimples – simply nothing else would do. Also, how could I take a black dolly to school? Even though my school was mainly African American, our toys were not. So to bring that black dolly in would have been shocking. Weird. Bad.

My little brother conveniently pulled her hair off and stuffed it into his three-year-old mouth and that was that, but her face and the audacity of her lingered on.

On into the spring, when I had to bring another dolly into school for something or other and I had my Shirley Temple then. And I fitted in. And all was right with the world.

Christmas was The Wizard of Oz, and sometimes the film was introduced on television by Judy Garland herself. We had no idea who she was, but she said that she was ‘Dorothy’ in the film, and anyway, she had a little girl named Liza who was sometimes on the show with her, so it all worked.

Shirley Temple was on TV, too, as a fairy queen introducing the anthology show Shirley Temple’s Storybook.

Her hair was black by now, but the dimples were still there and she acted, in a strange way like a child. I sang along with her, being a very romantic little kid, and like all kids then dreaming of fairy castles and gossamer and sheer beauty.

Then there was Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, who looked like a big Christmas tree to me. There he was swinging through medieval greenwood dressed in the glorious colours of the Middle Ages: Gold, ruby red and vibrant green. He was free, happy and defiant. All full of light and shining. I swung with him in Sherwood Forest.

Popular television, especially at Christmas, was created for us boomers. It was our baby sitter; the thing that sold stuff to us; and was also our first lesson in classic films.

It’s A Wonderful Life was all over the TV at Christmas. My generation started its ascent to its current ‘classic’ status, because it was buried in 1946, the year it first came out. As was Hitchcock’s Notorious with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant; The Big Sleep, with Bogart and Bacall; John Ford’s My Darling Clementine; The Postman Always Rings Twice. Films like that were all over the TV during 1950s Christmases. As was the film that overshadowed almost every movie in 1946, a film about veterans returning to America at the end of the Second World War: The Best Years Of Our Lives.

The movie that beat even that film at the box office back in 1946, though, was a Disney flick called Song of the South featuring a jolly old black guy singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. This was on TV, too, during our 1950s, Boomer childhoods, along with nightly news bulletins showing little African American kids walking through gauntlets of howling white mommies and daddies. These children were simply trying to go to their local school. Our dad made sure that we understood that.

I wrote my first play at the age of about eight. I think I had seen a playscript in a book and I liked the way it looked, so I copied the form. It was my first writing. My play featured a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary who really appalled my teacher, a very solid nun. Sister asked me where I had gotten the image of her tummy and the reality of having a baby. I told her quite simply that my mother was pregnant all the time and that was how I knew.

There was the Irish tenor who sang low and high Mass perched up in the choir loft of the ornate baroque-style church. My first theatre. The church was left behind by Sicilians who had left for whiter neighbourhoods, I felt blessed by the echo of it all and the candles and the smell of the pine wreaths and the incense and the manger and the ritual.

I did not understand then that the big boxes that arrived at our house just before Christmas were donated by our father’s factory union and that they were full of toys and food for Christmas. I did not know that we were considered to be ‘needy’ because everything then felt rich and opulent and great.

And you hold memories like this even when you’re old enough to know what lies beneath them and that they are fragments of a childhood that maybe you half made up in your head. We boomers were allowed to dream at Christmas and conjure up a world in which we ruled. This is the right of every child everywhere.

Now it is time that we become the Magi. Bearing what gifts we have, following the star of our often glorious childhoods. To point the way to peace.

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