I ruined Christmas in 1979 with an Atari 2600 gift. I was 7 years old.
The Atari was all I wanted. I started asking for one around Hallowe’en. My single Mom couldn’t possibly afford it. We weren’t poor, but all the money we had went to mortgage and school and we never had much extra for fun stuff. She told me there was no way she could buy it. It was $200, or about $800 in today’s dollars, and by that age I already understood what that meant.
Early December my sister, my older should-have-been-wiser sister, tipped me off that our mother had bought me the Atari. That it would be my Christmas present. I didn’t believe her, so she told me where it was hidden. In a gross dusty back closet in the garage. So when Mom wasn’t home I snuck into the closet and very, very carefully peeked and there was the Atari under some musty old polyester blanket.
I kept the secret for about three days. But I couldn’t contain myself. It was already bought and in the house! Even if Christmas was weeks away, surely I could go ahead and have it now and play it now? What would be the harm? So by my 7 year old logic I told my Mom I knew about the present. And informed her that since I knew about it, she might as well give it to me right then.
That was the second time I can remember my mother outright crying. The first time was two years earlier, when my father died. The third time was a few years later when I was 12 and so upset I told her I hated her and she’d ruined my life and honestly meant it in the moment.
But there in early December 1979 she burst into tears of anger and frustration because her big Christmas plan was ruined. She was so, so mad at me. Of course I couldn’t have my present. In fact since I’d been so naughty I was getting no present at all. She was going to return the Atari and give me nothing.
Sure enough, I had no presents under the tree. A day or two before Christmas she relented, a couple of small boxes appeared. I tearfully asked what had happened to the Atari. "It’s gone. I got you some underwear because, well, you need underwear anyway. You can open it on Christmas Day". I was no longer in a rush.
I felt so terrible. I knew how happy my mother was to have been able to buy that gift for me, how much it must have cost to have saved the money aside to be able to afford it. And then all that generosity and joy was ruined because I peeked at my presents.
So it was a pretty glum Christmas morning. I mean we had our stockings (with an orange in the toe), and candy, and nuts. There were a few boxes under the tree for me. I’d picked out my presents for everyone and they were ready to give, but I didn’t get much joy from that. I was just sad for my lost Atari.
Finally it came time to open presents. And my Mom handed me a small box, a cube, and told me to open it first. Inside was an Atari 2600 joystick! That confused the heck out of me. Then I opened the second box and it was a Combat game cartridge. Then another joystick, and an RF adapter, and then finally my mother took pity on me and hauled the last box out from where it’d been hidden; the Atari console itself, wrapped separately to hide what it was.
Best Christmas ever.