Welcome to Stuff I Learned Yesterday. My name is Darrell Darnell, my wife accidentally discovered the Christmas gift I bought her this year, and I believe that if you aren’t learning, you aren’t living. In today’s episode of Stuff I Learned Yesterday I share what I’ve learned from some of my favorite Christmas memories.

Today’s Fun Fact: Around these parts, the song, “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” gets a lot of radio play this time of year. Perhaps it gets a lot of air play in your neck of the woods too. I’ve even heard it used in an ad the USPS is running this year. But do you know the real story behind the song? Did you know it has connections to my home state of Oklahoma? (Source: Wikipedia)

“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is a Christmas novelty song written by John Rox and performed by Gayla Peevey (10 years old at the time) in 1953. The song peaked at number 24 on Billboard magazine’s pop chart in December 1953.

Peevey was a child star (born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), before her family moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma when she was five. When released nationally by Columbia Records, the song shot to the top of the charts, and the city zoo acquired a baby hippo named Matilda.

Peevey was filmed performing the song on The Ed Sullivan Show in October 1953, airing on November 15, 1953. A video of this performance is available on her website.

A popular legend holds that this 1953 hit had been recorded as a fundraiser to bring the city zoo a hippo; but in a 2007 radio interview with Detroit-based WNIC radio station, Peevey clarified that the song was not originally recorded as a fundraiser. Instead, a local promoter picked up on the popularity of the song and Peevey’s local roots, and launched a campaign to present her with an actual hippopotamus on Christmas.

The campaign succeeded, and she was presented with an actual hippopotamus, which she donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo. The hippopotamus lived for nearly 50 years and passed away in 1998.

Gayla Peevey later recorded as Jamie Horton, scoring the Billboard Hot 100-charter “My Little Marine” in 1960.

What I Learned Yesterday
The year was 1986. All I wanted for Christmas was a Hot Wheels toy called Dynamite Crossing. I told every member of my family that Dynamite Crossing was what I wanted and I probably told them each 10 times or more. It looked like one of the coolest toys I’d ever seen and I couldn’t imagine life being any better than if I had one to play with. When our family gathered for Christmas that year, my uncle Johnny showed up with a large, flat box wrapped in white paper. Fortunately for me, I could see through the paper and read that box said Dynamite Crossing on it. I played it cool as if I didn’t notice, and let out my excitement once the package was officially opened. It was a great Christmas.

I don’t know the year, but it was the mid 1980s. We had made our annual trip to Liberal, Kansas to spend the week with my dad’s sister and her family. My oldest cousin, Mandy, is about 10 years older than me and her brother, Garth, is probably 8 years older than I am. Several of us took a trip up to the local TG&Y store to do some last minute shopping. I thought it was odd when my oldest cousin asked me if I liked a particular mug featuring several Disney characters in a Christmas setting. I told her I did. The next day I opened that mug as my Christmas gift from Mandy and it became obvious why she’d asked me about the mug. I still own the mug to this day.

That same year, Uncle Johnny had matching gifts for my brother and I. Since we always opened gifts from the youngest to the oldest, I always went first. When I got to that particular gift, my uncle stopped me and told me I couldn’t open it yet. I thought he was joking and tried to blow him off. He got very serious and insisted that I immediately stop opening the gift. Nate and I were then instructed to open our gifts at the same time and inside we found matching photo albums of the pictures taken that summer when we met the Oklahoma Sooners football team. Both my brother and I still have our photo albums.

I have a ton of fond memories of my Christmases in Liberal, Kansas. I remember the times we spent each year putting together songs to sing and hearing my cousin Garth play his trumpet. I remember making suicides at the bar in the den. I remember Aunt Vivian and Uncle Len always and the fancy lunch meat you had to buy at the deli counter. I remember watching the adults in my family play some very intense games of spades every year. I remember how proud I was the year they taught me to play. I remember my Aunt Dot yelling at me when I played a bad card.

I remember how much Garth loved space and how he dreamed of working for NASA. I think he owned every single Star Wars toy, even the really expensive play sets and big ships. I loved making him mad by joking about Star Trek. I’d say, “Beat me up, Snotty” and he’d kick me out of his room.

I remember how Aunt Vivian loved Christmas and opening up her home to all of us each year. There was always tons of home made fudge, cookies, peanut brittle, and other treats. Their house was decorated for the season inside and out. When the front door opened it played Jingle Bells.

I also remember the big box we’d get each year from my mom’s parents. We called them Nanny and Papa. My favorite gift from them came when I was about 5. My brother and I got matching Tonka trucks. They were huge, especially to a 5 year old. They were probably about a foot tall and 16″ long. We’d take them out to the back yard, bend down so that we could reach them with our hands, and then run them along the grass as fast as we could. We’d run them into each other like a demolition derby. It seemed like those trucks lasted forever, despite the heavy abuse we gave them.

As a teenager, I remember the year I really wanted a pair of Bugle Boy jeans. That was the year my brothers and I decided to sneak a peak at our presents and discovered that we’d each be receiving a pair. When the time came to open them, all the fun was gone and I had to act excited.

I remember how my dad always amazed me with how good he was a predicting what was in each box. I’ve picked up much of that gift from him. One year when I was in junior high, I amazed my step-mom by guessing all but one of my gifts without peeking or cheating in any way. I even guessed an oddly shaped box to be a sleeping bag, despited not having asked for a sleeping bag or expecting one as a gift.

I remember in the year 2000 my wife bought me a Playstation 2 for Christmas. They were extremely hard to get that year but she’d managed to find one online. I came home from work one day and checked email, only to accidentally discover a shipping notification for the Playstation. Kari was very disappointed that I’d found out, and made me wait until Christmas to open it. I had to come home from work every day for weeks, see that package under the tree, imagine how much fun it would bring, and wait patiently to play it. It was torture.

As a parent, I remember waiting anxiously for the kids to go to bed so I could assemble my daughter’s doll house or my son’s construction tool set. I remember the sheer joy on Addi’s face when she opened up a box that said American Girl on it.

Here’s What I Learned
So why am I sharing these Christmas memories with you? It’s simple. Each of these stories represent what really matters. No, not the gifts. The people in each of these stories. Those are the real gifts. Dynamite Crossing soon broke and ended up in the trash can. Those Bugle Boy jeans eventually wore out and went out of style. The Playstation became out dated and now sits on a shelf in my closet collecting dust. Yes, I still have the Disney mug and the photo album. I cherish them not because of the cartoons on the mug or the photos of football players. I cherish them because of the memories they call to mind.

This coming weekend I’ll gather with my family by marriage and my family by birth. Each home will be filled with food, laughter, presents. New memories will be made. This time next year I probably won’t be able to tell you which gifts each person gave me. I probably won’t even be able to tell you most of the gifts I gave to them. But I’ll be able to remember the time we’ve shared.

As a kid, it was hard to not make Christmas all about the gifts. After all, Christmas is a time of year that is largely focused on kids. As I reached adulthood, that suddenly changed. Most family members no longer gave me gifts. The truth is, it helped me see what’s really important this time of year.

Aunt Vivian, Uncle Len, Aunt Dot, and my Grandpa have all passed away. On Saturday, I’ll open up a card with a $5 bill inside from my Grandma. She will have made more of a sacrifice to give me that $5 bill than I will have made to spend $50 on her. Despite my best efforts to get her to not give me a gift, she’ll do it anyway. I don’t blame her. Can a grandma not give her grandson a gift, no matter how small? Because I know the sacrifice that comes with the gift, it means as much to me, and in some ways even more, than any other gift I receive.

And that is the meaning of Christmas. Family. Love. Memories. Time. Bonding. Smiles. Laughter. These are the things that matter most.

If you’re like me, you need a stern reminder that memories are not found in the screen of a phone or TV. They are found in the presence of others. When those people who love us are gone, it will be too late to look up from our screens and create memories. All the other things will fade away and decay, but those memories last forever. They keep our loved ones alive within us.

So let’s each remember to set our eyes and attention upon those things which matter most this week. Let’s make some Christmas memories that will live on long after our time on this earth has passed.

I’m Darrell Darnell, and this has been Stuff I Learned Yesterday.

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