December 25, 2013

Gifts

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The best gift I’ve received in the last few years was a small wooden box, fashioned by hand, and containing a number of carefully selected small objects each with a personal meaning. It has no commercial value. It is a gift of the hand that is filled with the heart. I keep it nearby in my home and, from time to time, I open it and take out each object and hold them briefly before putting them back in their box and the box back on the shelf.

In another time and in another place I once saw the most Christmas gifts I’ve ever seen in a single home. It was in a place where the hands had gone astray and the heart been misplaced. It was the struggle of quantity to overcome quality made manifest.

It was at a home of some people I once knew in a town I once lived in. They had the required large house of many rooms. As a family of four they had about five rooms for every person. It was a house they could all hide in and they did. They hid from each other and they hid all year. On Christmas, however, they came out and pretended they were still a family.


The tree was set up in what these days we call “the family room” even though the room was really just a pass-through for the other rooms. The tree was, as these things had to be in that land at that time, very large and professionally decorated in whatever theme was deemed to be “in” that year. The star at the tip touched and was bent down by the ceiling. The ornaments were so thick that they obscured the green boughs that supported them. The lights were so numerous that the whole tree could have been hauled out and found a place among the approach lights to an airport.

It was good it was a big tree since it needed to be strong to support the wild pile of gifts that started where the two stairs down into the sunken family room bottomed out. The gifts then rose, in a tumult of wrapping paper, in a riot of colored ribbons, to a level of at least two and a half feet by the time they reached the outer boughs. For the family of four there were literally hundreds of presents all wrapped and tossed into the room like some third-world garbage heap until they filled the family room corner to corner.

To pass through this room you had to step carefully along the edges and most people who’d come to the party just went down the adjoining hallway.

In the larger rooms on that day before Christmas the family of four was holding their party for their friends and acquaintances. At that time and in that land the people attending still had lots of young children and their laughter and chatter gave a nice Christmasesque soundtrack to the drinking and eating that went on and on and on.

Our hosts were, to say the least, not getting along that year. Alcohol was taking its toll on the couple, as were the standard infidelities and betrayals common to that set in that land at that time. The hosts tried to put their war into a state of truce on this day so they could pretend, for a little longer, that everything was picture perfect in their world. But as the drinks kicked in their bickering became more and more bitter and I finally sought refuge from the ill spirits and moved off into the house.

I stood at one entrance to the tree/gift room and looked out the window over the mound of presents at the softly falling snow that filled their yard and pool. The winking lights of the tree and the Manheim Steamroller Christmas music coming out of the hidden speakers gave me a moment of Christmas feeling. Angry voices rose for a moment from the far room and then faded.

One of their boys, driven from the room by his parents’ rancor, showed up at the other entrance of the room and looked out over the massive pile of presents. He was a good kid. About four years old and less than three feet high. Red headed and freckled. A Norman Rockwell of a boy. I smiled at him and he smiled at me and then took a step down the first of the two stairs into the gift room.

And tripped.

And disappeared.

Before I could move that kid pitched forward into the gift pile and, with a swoosh and a crunch, was gone.

There were so many gifts piled up that they literally swallowed up the child so that the child could not be seen. He’d vanished beneath the waves of wrapping paper and bows.

After a moment his head popped up like a drowning child in a sea of turbulent affluence and he literally began to make crawling and swimming motions to get himself back to the safety of the stairs. There he climbed out, stood up and glanced at me ashamed by something he didn't understand.

“Looks like you’re going to have a very big Christmas,” I said.

He looked out at the presents that contained at least a hundred with his name on them.

“I guess" he said.

"I dunno,” he said.

Then he went back to the party and back to his parents, The Bickersons.

I had a similar but much smaller Christmas that year in that land. But it was, for that year, a good Christmas.

As for The Bickersons, their marriage and family was finished by late spring of that year. It had gone off to the same landfill that today contains all those hundreds of gifts. It couldn’t, I guess, take the weight. I dunno.

I treasure few things in this world but I do treasure my small burled wooden box containing the things of the hand and the things of the heart. I know where that gift is and what that gift is. And it abides.


"To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right."

For EJ, who gave.

Posted by Vanderleun at December 25, 2013 8:44 AM
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Merry Christmas, Gerard!

Posted by: Andy at December 25, 2009 8:33 AM

In so many ways, Christmas is a celebration of the triumph of Quality over quantity. You might say that Quality became quantity so that quantity might become quality.

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at December 25, 2009 8:47 AM

Simple gifts indeed. For whatever reason Christmas is the dam where sadness pools and makes it very difficult to experience happiness; the pain and sorrow of others' lives (not disappointment in quantity but the quality concept you and others have discussed) and the bitterness and emptiness that causes them to be angry, resentful, and selfish just overwhelms me for a time. Better now that the "Simple Gifts" melody and lyric have been played, and better that the burled wood box has been visited. Perspective is all important and your post helped me regain some of mine.
Nice to see that Gagdad has broken the surface as well. Merry Christmas to everyone.

Posted by: Dan Patterson at December 25, 2009 9:10 AM

Thanks, Gerard, for sharing this simple gift - or rather, this precious treasure - with us. I hope your Christmas this year is filled with such gifts of the hand and heart.

Posted by: Julie at December 25, 2009 11:29 AM

A thoughtful and brilliantly written post.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
May you all also have those "unsubstantial" treasures.

Posted by: Cheezburgrrr at December 25, 2009 6:50 PM

'Tis the Winter of our discontent, let there be no doubt.

Yet in good faith and as surely as the Earth turns, Spring will return again.

It is a hard thing to keep your heart warm when the world around you appears to be turning so cold, but that is what Faith is for.

Keep the faith, Merry Christmas!

Posted by: David at December 25, 2009 7:26 PM

Wow. I have a picture like that at the beginning of this post— but it's from my church's foyer, where the Giving Tree collection was gathered. (I didn't even get a *chance* at a tag this year— they were all gone!)

I love giving more than receiving, simply because picking out a perfect gift is a lot of fun, but when people ask me what I want I tend to go blank. This year I did okay with the nieces but I hit a home run with my nephew, to whom I gave a telescope that was all of $10. (He's almost five.)

I am still astonished at the amount of stuff we ended up with. Part of that is the fallout from being part of a large family group. But for some reason, I expected to go to the family gathering with all of my gifts and come home with less. Vain hope.

Posted by: B. Durbin at December 25, 2009 8:55 PM

Let us all give thanks to Gerard, our Poet Lariat.
He continually lassos the light allowing us all to see more clearly what is most important.

And for all,
"Remember love,
remember laughter.
Remember them now,
and forever after."

Posted by: FamouslyUnknown at December 26, 2009 12:55 PM

Merry Christmas, Gerard; and Glad Tidings to you and yours!

I was at my little brother's in N.C. For Christmas me and my brother (the major) put on gray suits, white shirts, and ties. I brought my suit and he matched it - I think some things require a proper reception.

Another family was there with their little ones, and another friend whose husband was in Baghdad (he called, and we wished him a Merry Christmas).

Good food was cooked; wine bottles were un-corked; beer was poured; whiskey found its home.

And little children ravaged colorful paper, and found the little treasures the paper shielded.

Much joy occured (according to the report).

But I heard the best today, a couple of hours ago. Today I got up at 4 a.m. to go from North Carolina back to Michigan. When I got home I e-mailed my little brother to say "I got back".

He returned "Allison (the almost 2 year old) was searching the guest room looking for you."

The Bumblebee is fond enough of me to look for me.

God, I am rich.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at December 26, 2009 5:47 PM

Merry Christmas, Gerard!

Posted by: Obi's Sister at December 27, 2009 3:24 PM

A Happy Christmas to you Gerard. This is a lovely story. I missed it the first time. I like when you regift your presents to us. They get better with every reading.

Posted by: Jewel at December 21, 2011 12:29 AM

Wonderful. Thank you. Merry Christmas!

Posted by: Hanover at December 21, 2011 6:56 AM

Anyone I know?

Posted by: flannelputz at December 21, 2011 10:01 AM

And..., just look how far we've come since you first penned it.

Posted by: BillH at December 23, 2012 8:30 AM

My favorite thing about Christmas is the whole family gathering together, cooking and preparing, singing, playing games, oohing & aahing and laughter, then cleaning up after and still tittering. The presents and the tree are just an excuse to be with the people we love.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL and TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT

Thank You, Gerard

Posted by: Tim at December 23, 2012 10:20 AM

It was 1957. We had just moved to California from the East Cost. We were happy but things hadn't gone well and Christmas wasn't going to be as bounteous that year. The week before one of the delights of our new home, a Santa Ana Wind, came up and with it came the tumbleweeds. My dad went out to the street and snagged one as it went by. He put it in the corner of our small living room then my mother adorned it with a single string of tiny blue lights and covered it with angel hair.

I sit here and my mind drifts to remebrances of Christmas past. I picture that holy blue radiance and I am fulfilled.

Posted by: Roy Lofquist at December 23, 2012 10:59 AM

There is a difference between a possession and loot.

A possession requires a place in your life. It requires some maintenance and a useful purpose - albeit a tool, a work of art, or even a container for a memory. But a possession requires possessing which means time spent out of your day or week or month.

Too many possessions and the place is disorderly and its purposes are tarnished. Especially if you can't find the possession or other things for that matter.

Thus it also takes some possession of its owner.

Loot... is well... loot. You use it. Use it up and discard it. If its in the way, you discard it. If it gets broken, so what? Discard it. Teh value of loot is obviously a lot less than a possession.

Do anyone want to admit being a keeper of loot (vs a possession)?

Posted by: Cond0011 at December 23, 2012 3:02 PM

Merry Christmas and thanks for a very nice story.

My favorite Christmas present was given to me when I was 18. My mom had been in a bad wreck the previous year. Her knees had been destroyed and she lost her front teeth on the brake pedal. She was able to just barely get around on crutches. All we had was disability and I had not been able to attend my high school graduation because there just was not enough money for it.
My mom bought me a pair of fleece lined gloves. It meant so much to me then and still does. Because what matters the most about Christmas is the love that the presents are wrapped in.

Posted by: Teri Pittman at December 23, 2012 6:10 PM

Catching up on the Blog-o-Sphere this calm and peaceful morning, it was reassuring to read the essay describing the largesse and madness of Christmas that I have been gradually escaping from for the whole of my life. Reassuring in the way that you exposed the facade of happiness that many people view as genuine. This illusion has greased the eyes of many of our fellow Americans in other facets of the successful American lifestyle.

Posted by: Antonnia at December 30, 2012 8:35 AM

'illusion'. Good grief auto correct! [Fixed]

Posted by: Antonnia at December 30, 2012 8:46 AM

Reading this again, now with a lad of my own almost the age of the one in my story, my heart breaks for that little boy. I hope somehow, some way, he is finding his way past that room and into a less filled and more fulfilling life.

Posted by: Julie at December 25, 2013 1:07 PM

Christmas is for everyone. It isn't just the celebration of one man's birthday, but a celebration of joy and redemption. It is a gift for everyone. A day to stop and shout "Joy to the World".

Posted by: grace at December 26, 2013 7:43 PM