Betting on a Merry Christmas

This happened long ago, when we were still young, and the dogs were still alive.

It was a couple of days before Christmas, and the last of the light was bleeding from a leaden sky on a raw, wet afternoon as I turned into the gravel parking lot at the park, the dogs quivering with excitement in the back seat.

The park was a bleak and deserted place in the twilight, but the dogs had been cooped up all day and couldn’t be denied their run. They shot from the car and bounded away as I followed less enthusiastically. Crossing the parking lot, I saw what looked like a large wad of paper on the ground, and gave it a half-hearted soccer kick as I passed.

A chilly hour later, fingers and toes numb, but the dogs now panting contentedly, I regained the parking lot, navigating by flashlight. Its beam picked out the same wad of paper, It looked out of place,- not at all like refuse, so I stopped to examine it more closely. It wasn’t a randomly crumpled ball, but rather a carefully folded mass of what appeared to be lottery tickets- a very large number of lottery tickets. Had they been purposely discarded, or  possibly inadvertently lost? It didn’t seem right to leave them lying in the gravel, so I shoved them in a pocket.

Back in the warmth of our home, fire crackling and Christmas tree alight,  I remembered my find, and commandeered the dining room table to spread out and further investigate it. Peeling back the top layer of tickets I discovered more beneath, and another layer beneath that. There were literally hundreds of lottery tickets, all for the draw that had happened the previous night.

Younger readers will scoff, but in those pre-computer days, lottery draws were held on television, with a hostess prancing around in a ball gown to retrieve coloured and numbered ping pong balls. If you missed the show, you had to resort to the local newspaper the next day to see if you had won; so I found our newspaper, and the results page, and began the labourious task of checking the numbers.

It soon became obvious that I wasn’t the first to have undertaken this chore- there were pencil marks on each ticket, and matching numbers circled.  There were too many tickets to hold my interest in double checking them all, but I spent a few minutes, with a sinking heart, doing a random sampling.

The awful truth was quickly revealed- this was simply an enormous wad of  losing tickets – nary a one had more than two matching numbers. Never personally having invested  more than $5 on a lottery draw, I was stunned by the size of the loss. It was staggering. By a quick tally, scattered across our dining room table were over $3000 of tickets- all completely worthless.

$3000 is a lot of money today- back then, it was a huge sum, easily a couple of months wages for many- the price of a late model used car, or even the down payment on a starter home, and far more than you would need for even an extravagant Christmas, and someone had just pissed it all away.

Had it been a ‘Hail Mary’ attempt to break free of debt? If so, had they borrowed to fund the wager and now found themselves even deeper in the hole? Or had this been some Kipling-esque folly, throwing away hard won savings in hopes of grabbing the brass ring?

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings

and risk it all one on  turn of pitch-and toss.

and lose, and start again at your beginnings

and never breathe a word about your loss “

Somehow I just couldn’t picture a nonchalant loser tossing away the bundle of losing tickets with aplomb. This smacked more of desperation. Deep desperation. This loss wouldn’t have just stung, it would have wounded to the core, and it must have been a sickening torture to slowly, carefully inspect every number on every ticket, with hope seeping away as each was discarded, leaving  only despair at the end.

Perhaps, I reflected, it is something about the Christmas season, the pressure to create a perfect, magical experience suitable for a Coca-cola commercial, that drives desperate  people to take such desperate chances.

In the end, my gambler must have stood amongst the bare trees in the chilly twilight of that deserted parking lot, staring down the sombre reality that however awful his Christmas season had begun, it had now been made unnecessarily so much worse.

Not everyone’s Christmas is a Hallmark Christmas.