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Handmade toys worth the effort

It was such a tiny little barn, far too small to shelter any of the animals normally found in such buildings. No bigger than the apple box and the orange crate, the raw materials from which it was made. Tiny, yet big enough to encompass all the Christmas love of a father for his children.

It could have been bought at the store and then it would have been fancier and more brightly painted. Then it probably would have had some little tin animals of proper scale to fit inside.

It could have, but it wasn’t. When there is a surplus of kids and a shortage of cash money, gifts have to come from some place other than the toy counter of a store in town. That “some place” has to be in the family workshop.

Besides, while a “bought” toy under some circumstances can convey the love one person holds for another, a homemade one usually does it better. It speaks to a concern so deep that the giver is willing to put some of his own life, his irreplaceable time, into it.

So it was in the Christmas season of 1921 that the workshop doors were closed in mid-November to all those not yet of legal age. In the evenings, bone tired as he was after a day of selling advertising, setting stories on the old linotype and the other chores of a country newspaper publisher, my grandfather still managed to spend an hour or two “out in the shop.”

It is a story my father was fond to tell every Christmas. And, I guess, I am, too.

Somewhere or other, Grandpa had found an old oak board, probably the endgate of a wagon originally. It was about the right shape to serve as a floor for the miniature barn he intended to make as a Christmas gift for his kids.

To this he attached walls made from the side panels of apple boxes. These were slightly thicker and of somewhat better wood than the “common man’s lumber,” the ever-present orange crate.

One side of the barn was left open so little hands could reach inside and arrange the animals and direct the comings and goings of the toy dolls dressed as the farmer and the hired man.

A tolerable imitation of a fat hog was made from wooden spool and some cardboard. With long legs made from pipe cleaners and tails cut from old manila rope, those spools also simulated cows and horses.

Authentic red barn paint, borrowed from some farmer friends off the whole project.

By the third week in December, it was all done. Keeping an object as large as a toy barn hidden until Dec. 25 was not an easy task. Even so, it was easier than the job of wrapping it for Christmas morning.

In the prosperity of the post-WWII years, when I was growing up, my father was able to give me “store bought” toys, as I have been able to give my own children.

But my father gave me something else. He gave me this story of his most memorable gift, and it has stuck with me over the years.

I’ve attempted to make gifts from my own hands in recent years, and I have found them the most satisfying to give as well as receive.

Children will always love to wake up Christmas morning to find the latest toys and gadgets under the tree. But none of those can express the spirit of Christmas like a handmade gift.


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