The perfect gift
This past week my inbox has exploded with email from every company with whom I have ever done online business or to whom I have given my email address. The barrage is constant and overpowering…save here, buy this, only X hours left. This coupled with the incessant TV commercials about Black Friday deals has made me ill and pretty peevish.
For me, the holidays are always a bittersweet time. I enjoy the opportunity to spend time with the wonderful family and friends I have been so blessed to have in my life. I suffer with the all too real knowledge of how many people are not as blessed as I am and who are largely forgotten this holiday season (often on top of being forgotten the rest of the year).
My last Christmas before my parents divorced is emblazoned on my memory. I had waited up, laying as still as possible in my bed, listening for Santa. I reasoned that since we had no chimney, he must have to use the front door. I should hear a telltale creaking sound from it’s rusty hinges. At some point I fell asleep and when I rose there was a beautiful pink huffy next to the tree for me. Oh, how I had dreamed of that bicycle! It was the best Christmas ever, I thought, as the carpet was rapidly covered by scraps of colorful paper.
The following year, Christmas didn’t come, at least not like that. The day wasn’t marked with oodles of presents but by cookies my grandmother made so that we would have something on this special day. Cookies in myriad colors and shapes were laid out over every counter in the kitchen to be accompanied by a Turkey dinner she also made and all the soda pop we could drink. It was a wonderful Christmas and yet, I was sad that Santa had forgotten us. Was I that bad? I brushed it off and enjoyed the holidays until I returned to school and the teacher made us go around the room and tell the class about our best present. I lied. The kids called me out on it and I was humiliated in front of the whole class for being poor.
Two years later, our circumstances had only deteriorated. My mother announced there would be no Christmas this year. Oh, the tree would go up, but there would be no Christmas feast. It was simply too extravagant for our budget. Somehow the feast had made the lack of toys, colored paper, and stocking stuffers bearable. The days ’til Christmas ticked by and I was hit by a double whammy. My birthday, which landed right before Christmas would also be affected by budget cuts. There would be no birthday party this year, no cake, no present. I finally understood how far down the ladder we had fallen. I tried to put on my brave face for my younger sister who was too little to understand what was going on. Our church had a holiday program four nights before my birthday and my mom took us hoping it would be enough to make up for what she felt we were missing. I don’t remember it. What I remember is coming home exhausted, trying to choke back my sorrow and sense of injustice.
As we rounded the corner in the stairwell to reach our door, I spied a huge bright red box encased in ribbon with a card addressed to my family. My mother is disabled and couldn’t lift the box and my sister was too small to help, so I dragged the box through the front door and we perched around it in our cramped living room, totally stunned. I carefully undid the wrapping paper, making sure not to tear it and opened the box. Inside was all the fixings for a holiday feast including a turkey and everything we would need to make cookies. Also inside were six smaller wrapped boxes- two each for myself and my sister for Christmas, one for my mother, and one for my birthday- and a plate of iced heart-shaped cookies with a note indicating they were for my birthday. As it near midnight, and therefore almost my birthday, my mother let me open the birthday gift. It was a beautiful gold necklace with my first initial on it (I wore it everywhere, even long after the gold plating had worn off). I was shocked and overwhelmed. Who would do this? Who had known? It was family policy to never discuss our situation, so I couldn’t imagine how anyone knew this was just what we needed.
Five days later, we opened the rest of our presents. I don’t remember what my mom was given. My sister and I both got exceptionally well-made, warm winter coats, which were sorely needed. We each got a board game as well. Mine was a career game for girls. We stuffed ourselves with Turkey and cookies and played together as a family. It was the best Christmas I have ever had.
Financially, things didn’t really improve for me until after I got married. As a result, I guess I have never developed a passion for the holiday spirit of buying just the right gift for each and every person. Maybe I’ve just come to realize that as much as I loved that Huffy, which was exactly the gift I wanted, it was not the best gift I’ve ever received. A feast, a winter coat and a game will always take that prize, not because it meant the difference between getting gifts and not, but because someone took the time to think of two little girls who felt alone and left out. They cared enough to not only buy us each warm coats we needed and toys for us to enjoy, but to also provide our Christmas dinner that in my mind was the benchmark for whether or not we would be okay. For years I fantasized about our guardian angels that Christmas. Were they a young family with kids? Friends of ours? People from church? Or was it really just a miraculous occurrence? I’ll never know. But the lesson they taught me so many years ago is emblazoned on my heart forever.
This holiday season isn’t about whether you get the best deals, or whether or not kids have toys to play with, no matter what the incessant media barrage says. The perfect toy won’t be emblazoned on your child’s memory for all eternity. Family and community, these are the things that matter.
That first holiday season after my husband I married, was the first time I could pay forward the Christmas someone graciously gave me all those years ago. Every year, we find a needy family in our community and give them Christmas. Some years it’s been smaller than others. Some years when we PCSed during the holidays, it’s meant simply donating to Toys for Tots or adopting an Angel from the Angel Tree. But every year, when I wake up to a tree with no presents under it, I think about the family who is having their Christmas miracle this year and it brings me more peace and joy than all the things we could possibly buy with the money we spent. I hope that whomever my guardian angels were so many years ago, they know what a profound and lasting impact they made on my life. It’s a tradition we hope to continue as we start a family, so that our children can be blessed with the spirit of charity that is the real reason for this season.