When I was a child, the most thrilling day of my year was the day the Sears and J.C. Penney holiday catalogs arrived in the mail. Always the size of a coffee-table edition of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the catalogs held the secrets of how to make a child’s Christmas merry and bright – in high-color glossy detail.
I insisted the catalogs be kept for the entire year, until the next editions arrived, and I’d fish them out of the magazine rack next to my mom’s easy chair often. I’d dog-ear pages and circle items and make elaborate lists of all my hopes and dreams for Christmas, and revisit the lists in April to create my birthday wish list.
I didn’t get most of the things I circled.
My folks were sensible people, and gave their kids sensible gifts. Sure, we had some toys. But for every toy, I’d get two or three sensible items like jeans or a windbreaker because I’d already grown out of the school clothes they bought in September. Or books, because my mom especially believed children should flex their imaginations. And books didn’t have a thousand little pieces like a Lite Brite to impale adult feet or be sucked up by the Kirby vacuum cleaner.
At the time, part of me resented their sensibility. Not that I didn’t appreciate books, because I did and still do, but I really wanted a Lite Brite. And a rock tumbler. And Silly Putty. And a number of things I never got because my parents thought they’d “make too much of a mess.”
So I lived in the pages of those catalogs throughout the year, imagining I lived with a different family who always got me everything I circled. I believed, sort of, that I’d be a happier boy with a closet full of toys rather than a closet full of school clothes. Not that I wasn’t grateful, because I was and still am. And I never said a word to my folks. These were secret dreams, coming into the daylight only now as I type.
Thankfully, I grew up to be a very different adult.
A house fire destroyed nearly all my possessions many years ago. There’s nothing like an event like that to make one realize what’s important and what’s just useless clutter. I replaced only a fraction of what I lost. Even now, nearly 20 years later, I find myself asking “Will you be sad if it’s lost in a fire” before I buy many things.
The fire changed Christmas for me too. I’m no longer the child bent on getting things to increase my happiness. Now I find my happiness in experiences, in going places and seeing and doing life-changing things. In cooking for people. In sharing a bottle of wine with dear friends and people I’m closest to. In music and art and gardening and watching the wildflower seeds we surreptitiously tossed on the bank of the creek in front of the house wriggle up green and fragile from the earth.
And yes, in books – though I admit I don’t make nearly enough time for them.
I also find my happiness in giving rather than getting. In finding the fine line my mom always managed to nail between useful and fun. Like her, I’ve become a sensible giver: a couple items of need for every one item of fun.
It took a long time, but I have learned the lesson she always tried to teach us when we were kids, that the true gift is in the giving.
Of course, it helps that I have everything I could need and want with a lot left over. But even when I didn’t, I still valued the lesson learned and its truth. I hope I always will.
I write this not as a lecture on the consumerism of our society or to be the holiday kill-joy. My power of persuasion isn’t enough to accomplish anything on the first front, and I have no intention of killing Christmas joy. Mostly I write to remind myself to embrace the gift of giving and to be thankful that I’m able to give at all.
My mom passed away almost 12 years ago. Her last Christmas was hard, because she knew and we knew it was going to be the last. As we’d gotten older, we adopted a tradition of drawing names to give and get just one gift from one family member, and my mom gave us all “stockings” – gigantic gift bags filled with both sensible and fun. Dozens of little gifts, always handpicked especially for each recipient based on hints we’d dropped throughout the year and things she knew we always needed, like socks and Reese’s peanut butter cups.
I don’t know how she managed it, in the dark ages before Amazon Prime and with cancer tearing at her brain and spinal cord, but she pulled together stockings for all of us as usual. Epic stockings. The best of my life. Each little gift, thoughtfully chosen and important, such that I still have and hold almost every one of them all these years later.
And as she watched her family dive into their bags, she beamed. Her first real smiles in months, and some of the last she ever wore. She’d again found the true gift of giving, one last time.
As I have every Christmas since.