The Christmas Gift

wrapping paperIt is December, and is time to wrap the gifts I’ve carefully selected for my children.  A few evenings ago, I rummaged through the attic in search of paper and ribbon and came across a box marked “Sentimental Stuff.”  Inside is a music box with a dancing clown.

In the late summer of 1982, I window shopped at Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts with my husband, Paul.  Johnson’s was an amazing store with rooms upon rooms of books, toys and art supplies.  We browsed for hours, leafing through pages, and dreaming of giving the beautiful dolls, books and teddy bears to our unborn child.  On a shelf were small shadow boxes containing jointed paper clowns that danced when the music box on the back was wound. I was immediately taken by them, but I knew my practical farm-raised husband would not recognize the value in such frivolity.  Besides, in those lean years, our pennies were carefully counted and reserved for bare necessities, so after a few moments of watching the paper clown dance, I turned and left the store.

That December as the holidays approached, we struggled to pay for food and oil.  We kept our heat only high enough to keep our pipes from freezing, and heated water on the stove for dishes and bathing.  Our finances were grave, but our mood was bright.  It was Christmas, after all- the celebration of our Savior’s birth.  Christ was born into poverty with the sole purpose of dying for all mankind.  And yet, there was no bitterness in His birth.  The heavens rejoiced, and so would we.  We decorated a small tree and settled in front of the fireplace to discuss our gift giving budget.

After a long conversation, we settled on rules for our yuletide celebration.   We would each have ten dollars to spend on each other.  There would be no cheating, no borrowing, no allowing anyone else foot the bill.  Everything under the tree would have to be something we made ourselves, or bought within the ten-dollar budget. 

During the following weeks, I stretched my sweater over my growing belly and concentrated on knitting wool scraps into mittens for my husband.  I used my ten dollars on wool socks, a flannel shirt, and Christmas goodies to fill Paul’s stocking.  A few days before Christmas, I finally finished the mittens.  They were pieced together in stripes- tan, rust and brown, all from yarn left over from my mother’s past projects, but the stitches were tight and they promised to keep his hands warm when he shoveled our long driveway on snowy mornings.  I carefully wrapped them, hoping they would fit his hands, and wondering if he would like them.

Christmas morning dawned and we feasted on eggs, homemade muffins, and coffee.  We prayed our thanks to God for the amazing gift of His son and sat at the foot of the tree to open gifts.  Paul was pleased with his. The shirt and socks fit and he promised me that he loved the mittens and would wear them often.  Then he handed me a small box.

I slowly opened the red and white paper and to my surprise, discovered the dancing clown music box clownfrom  Johnson’s Bookstore. 

My eyes filled with tears.  “You cheated!” I accused, knowing the music boxes cost far more than our budget had allowed.

“No- really,” he protested.  I kept looking and looking but I couldn’t find anything I liked that I could afford.  I went into Johnson’s and this was the only one left.  It was stuck in a corner and was a bit dusty.  There wasn’t a price tag on it, so I asked.  The clerk couldn’t find a price, so he offered to sell it to me for ten dollars.” 

“I saw how much you loved it last summer,” he said softly.  “I wanted to get it then, but I couldn’t afford it.”

My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him as tightly as my swollen belly would allow.  We placed the clown on a shelf where it served as a reminder that young love can overcome the tightest budgets and the toughest obstacles.

Somewhere in the years that followed the music box stopped working.  Perhaps it was wound too tightly, or maybe its Christmas magic just ran out.  But the clown stopped dancing, and the music stopped playing, and eventually the marriage ended.

But in December, there is no room for bitterness. Although we are no longer a couple, I still remember that Christmas with great fondness.  Even though we cannot live as husband and wife now, the love we shared on that day, and for many more was real and true. 

I carefully put the clown back in its box and closed the lid.  Then, taking a deep breath, I grabbed a roll of paper, turned out the light and shut the door to the attic.

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Dad’s Gift

This morning I woke up with the bug…the Christmas bug.  Suddenly, I can’t wait to put up a tree and start gift shopping.  It’s time for carols and cookies and secrets in stockings. 

For me, Christmas is all about anticipation.  It is the season of planning and conniving.  It starts off small, like one little golden bell jingling in the distance and as the big day approaches, other bells join in, until it all reaches a crescendo of laughter, food and gift giving.

As a child, I would slowly turn the pages of the Sears catalogue, dreaming about what presents Santa might leave under the tree.  I imagined buying diamond earrings for my mother and a gold watch for my father.  I envisioned my sisters waking up to find their bedrooms had been redecorated in thick comforters with matching floral curtains.  I laboriously read the descriptions of Tonka trucks so I could choose the very best for my brothers, and I debated upon which teddy bear would be the softest for the babies. 

This was “pretend” shopping. The reality is that with a large family and limited income, my parents had to pinch pennies to give presents to their children.  However, that did not keep them from teaching us the joy of gift giving. 

The Christmas before my seventh birthday, I was given a dollar to spend at the five-and-dime.  I slowly walked through the aisles, carefully calculating how much money each gift cost, and subtracting it from my total purse.  A delicate handkerchief for my mother.  Cubes of guest soap for my sisters.  Plastic animals that squeaked when they were squeezed for the babies.  And two little bottles of “Kings Men” after shave for my father.  The bottles were milky glass with lids in the shape of knights’ armor.  I couldn’t loosen the caps to smell what was inside the bottles, but I felt sure that anything named “Kings Men” would be delightful.  Most certainly my father, who meticulously shaved every morning, would love it.

The little gifts were punctiliously selected and taken home to my room, where I spread them out on my bottom bunk.  I selected the wrapping paper to fit each gift’s owner- jolly elves for the boys, Poinsettia for the girls, and after using half a roll of tape and several yards of curling ribbon, took the masterpieces downstairs and laid them at the base of the tree.

On Christmas morning, I rose before dawn, crept down the stairs and gasped at the plethora of gifts that found their way to our living room.  Shiny red tricycles, baby dolls that drank and wet, and sleds had miraculously appeared in our living room.  For the next few hours, ribbons and bows flew as gifts were ripped open and voices exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted!” 

When we got to the last of the pile, I saw my father’s gift.  It seemed small and insignificant next to the wool sweater vest and set of screw drivers he had already opened.  I slowly brought the package to his easy chair and he looked at the tag.  “For me?  Is this from you, Boo?”

I nodded and watched while he struggled with the tape.  He opened the package and uncapped one of the bottles to take a whiff.  As he inhaled, his eyes grew huge and he gave a small cough.  “Did you pick this out all by yourself? “

I nodded again and he gathered me in his arms.  “Thanks Boo.”

He carefully arranged the bottles in their place of honor with his other gifts and winked at my mother.  I felt my heart would burst with pride.  His favorite gift.  From me!

For years the little white bottles of “Kings Men” sat in the medicine cabinet of our bathroom.  I occasionally wondered why Dad never ran out of it, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized what a rancid odor was contained under the caps of armor. 

I suppose you could argue that Dad missed an opportunity to be honest with me.  You could say that children should be given more guidance when shopping for gifts- that they should be taught to “find something nice.”

But here’s the thing- when my friends are grumbling about the chore of Christmas shopping, I can’t wait to pick out a special something for a special someone.  My parents taught me to do the best with what I have and trust that the recipients will accept all presents in the spirit in which they are given.  Consequently, gift giving is easy for me.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  Learning to give without fear was the gift my father gave to me that Christmas. And it remains in my heart to this day.

So now, when I hear the faint tinkle of Jingle Bells playing in my head, I am tempted to ditch work in favor of some Holiday shopping.  There are gifts to be picked out.  Smiles to be won.  Packages to be wrapped and ribbon to be curled.  It’s Christmas.  It’s time for giving. 

Thanks, Dad.

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