by Bill Monson


Until I had kids of my own, I used to scoff at letters to Santa. They seemed a waste of postage to me. Oh, how wrong I was!

I learned my lesson the year I gave my son Jim a Raiders cap because he had a Raiders jacket. What I forgot was that the jacket was a mistaken gift from an uninformed relative, and Jim was actually a Dolphins fan. Talk about a sour face when he opened his presents on Christmas morning!

Talk about another sour face when I had to go stand in the return line and then try to find a Dolphins cap in a town which was mostly 49ers country! There was no Internet then, and I wound up having to order a cap and have it arrive AFTER Super Bowl Sunday!

Now I see the value of letters to Santa. They let a kid spell out in his/her own writing what he/she wants, and help some out-of-the- loop dad or grandpa avoid Christmas Morning Scowl.

Things get tougher when the kids get to be teen-agers. I don't know the difference between grunge and garage or underground

and alternative. Hip hop is what bunnies do. So how in the Sam Hill am I supposed to know that Queen is out and Eminem is in--or was it vice versa? Since teens don't usually like to write letters and never a letter to Santa, my family has made it a rule: if you don't want a gift certificate to Gap, write out a list--and in the case of CDs, specify both band and album title.

Grandparents are especially vulnerable to mistakes--doubly so if they live out of town and aren't up-to-date on each grandchild's personality. Lists and letters help us avoid sending a doll to the newly-developed tomboy. They also allow intelligent parents to ensure that different sets of grandparents don't buy the same present, thus avoiding return lines for one set and headaches for the parent on choosing which one. He or she (and in our family, it's mostly she) can then allocate which present to buy. This can also prevent overdoing by one set or another. There's

only so much room in a kid's bedroom after all.

When I was growing up, this wasn't much

of a problem. We wrote letters to Santa, then lists (in order of desire, too!) While we were not poor, our family did not have a lot of money for presents; and my relatives were in the same boat. As a result, I rarely got more than a dozen gifts; and half of those were clothes.

One was an orange.

Also, I was born on December 23, so I

usually got stiffed on Christmas or my birthday --or got a pair of socks, one for each day.

Gifts were a lot less fancy in my childhood, too. You didn't have thousands of designers worldwide and computer technology to create a bewildering array of electronic marvels. You could have put all of the toy departments in Galesburg into one Toys R Us and had room left over for Woolworth's lunch counter. You also didn't have television and color newspaper ads pounding products kids "just had to have."

Today, I wander through toy stores and

gape at the incredible panoply of toys (and their equally incredible prices!) Gee, I'd like to play with a lot of them myself.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the gifts I got back in what my grandkids call "the olden days." Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, a Boy Scout

knife, Chip Hilton books, a basketball, a ball glove, yes, even a Red Ryder range model air rifle. Simpler toys, perhaps, for a simpler time; but they still make most of them--and they still sell--even these days.

So as I wander the stores in these last

days before Christmas, I feel no pressure. I have my list and I can do my shopping in one morning if I choose. But I usually mosey --looking and marveling--occasionally finding a stocking stuffer which calls out to me. (After all, Christmas has got to have a little mystery and surprise. . .)

And I try to find more joy, less hassle in the season because after all, I already have the greatest gift a person can receive--God's own son, the real reason behind all the pagan garnishings we humans have added to His