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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 where I once lived in another life in another time long, long ago. 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 lost land of long ago. 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper December 25, 2017, 1:16 PM

    Ahhh yeah, forgot about this one. Another of my favorites.
    One of these days I’m gonna start “stealing” these, my favorites, and get one of my wife’s publisher buddies to put them all together in a coffee table book format. It’ll be titled “AMDIG” and it will have a picture of GVL right in the middle and submitted headshots of all the regular readers all around him.

  • Mary Ann December 25, 2017, 1:20 PM

    Thank you for reposting this. I think about it every Christmas. We had our own version of this experience 20 years ago or so. It refocused our approach to Christmas and what was valuable and to be treasured and what was filler. Merry Christmas to you and yours Gerard.

  • Sam L. December 25, 2017, 6:05 PM

    I remember this one, too. A classic. You write good, Gerard; damn good.

  • Don Rodrigo December 25, 2017, 8:21 PM

    Merry Christmas!

  • Joan of Argghh! December 26, 2017, 6:49 AM

    Merry Christmas, Gerard, to you and your mom!

  • ghostsniper December 26, 2017, 7:34 AM

    Well my wife went a little overboard again this year. For the past 20 years I’ve been telling her we need to scale back on this whole gift routine and we have but she’s been reluctant. She turns into a little kid all over again at Christmas. The ENTIRE house gets the works, inside and out and she starts this process on the 1st of Dec and not 1 minute sooner. All the holiday stuff takes up about about 1/8 of my garage from floor to ceiling and I’ve told her we need to weed that stuff out but it never happens.

    The 75′ long of string of blue C9 bulbs that go on the porch railing are 12 years old now and the paint has been flaking off them for about 5 years. The home made cardboard and paper mache manger set up her brother made in boy scouts about 50 years ago that is tattered and torn and needs more scotch tape each year. The santy clause collection she started when our son was born and 1 more added to it each year that now has 38 of them but he hasn’t lived with us for a long time. And the 20+ ceramic houses with internal lights with shubbery’s and trees, pedestrians, and even an ice skating rink with skaters, that are chipped or have flickering lights. And on and on. Way too much stuff.

    I told my wife to only give me a couple things and they must be things I can “use”, not things to “have”. There’s a diff. I want very little and need even less, and so do most people if they stop and think about it. But again, the day after Christmas my office has a bunch of stuff that will get rarely used and all I can think about is the money that was spent for it. I’d rather she kept the money. I feel guilty when she does all this. I have never felt right about the few meager windfalls that have happened in my life. If I didn’t earn it or exchange something of value for it then I feel like I shouldn’t have it. I understand the concept of a gift, but at what point is a line crossed? 2 gifts? 3? 10?

    This year was the first in 62 years that my wife has not at least talked to her mother. For 33 years in a row our Christmas days were spent at her house, eating, laughing, yappin’, spreading the cheer, and other family members would stop by and bring food and gifts and the place was a veritable hub of family activity and by the time we got home over an hour away after dark we would be exhausted. We don’t drink so that is a good thing cause traversing these ice covered winding country roads straight is daunting enough let alone 3 sheets to the wind.

    But this year was diff because my wifes mom was not there. She went to be with her husband on 27 Nov. We suffer what’s been lost and we hope she is now better off. Through the past 4 weeks my wife has taken all of this fairly well, I thought, considering how close she was to her mom. Not a day went by that they didn’t talk on the phone and I can’t tell you how many times she has burst into my office wanting to use my phone to call her mom back cause her battery went dead. Hundreds I’m sure. When she spoke a few words at the funeral her last sentence was, “Mom was my best friend.”, and now she’s gone. Since then my wife has not shed a tear in front of me and said she hasn’t shed any at all and she doesn’t know why. I told her I have no answer as to why that is. This morning my wife was at the top of the stairs and I was down by the front door heading out to my office and I yelled up at her, “When did you get the new Cardinal wind chime on the front porch?” She told me it was her mothers and she brought it back when her and her 2 brothers were going though her things a couple weeks ago. She spoke some more about her mom and I could hear her voice cracking and the floodgate opened and she started coming down the stairs to me and I met her halfway up. I held her and she melted into my chest and I tried my best to absorb all the pain away from her. I think I can carry it better than she but what do I know? I just don’t want her to feel bad and do whatever I can to not let that happen but some things are beyond my capacity. This isn’t a gouge in the drywall, or a sticking door latch, or a dead vehicle battery. I can’t fix this. Only time can do that but a scar will always remain.

    In a day or 2 the burn barrel will be glowing white hot as I pile all the boxes and wrapping paper and bows and such in it and I’ll stand there up wind with the temp in the teens and snow all around and think about Christmas’s past and maybe even the next one and be thankful for what I have. Look! There go three deers!

    “The Ghost of Christmas Passed”

  • Julie December 26, 2017, 5:52 PM

    Dammit, Ghost, you made me cry. I know you aren’t a man of faith, and you don’t care what most people think about much, especially when it’s personal. Even so, your wife and her family are in our prayers. She sounds very special; I’m glad she has you.

  • ghostsniper December 26, 2017, 8:05 PM

    I do care Julie, but in a serious way that most people cannot appreciate, so I walk alone.
    I’m content to live and let live.
    Thank you.

    When we met I was a 10 ton wound-up razor sharp spring with a built-in million volt wire sparking and hissing. She grabbed on and gave me direction, inspiration, and reason. I didn’t know it would last this long but that was never the goal. Just getting by each day was good enough and that got us to where we are now. A variation of that thing my grandmother used to say, “Keep track of your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

  • Julie December 27, 2017, 7:05 AM

    Your grandmother was wise. We have two little kids. They are constantly trying to plan for things months and years away; we are constantly telling them, let’s just get through today!

  • ghostsniper December 28, 2017, 4:11 AM

    Julie, I liked your interpretation of the ostrich and stared at it for quite a while.
    In fact, it’s part of the slide show on my desktop right now, hope you don’t mind.
    I tried to define the 3 basic steps, the background, the subject, and the thin black detail lines.

  • Teri Pittman December 28, 2017, 4:36 PM

    I have a new favorite gift this year, from my husband, who usually doesn’t do a good job of this. It’s a hand made suede purse. It has a feather design, done in free motion quilting by Tim Latimer, who is well known in the quilting world. He does his work either by hand or using treadle sewing machines. It’s a simple but amazing thing. When we looked at it, it was one of those things I hoped he’d buy me. Then he had to check and see if I thought it was okay to spend that much (like someone is going to say “No, don’t you spend that much on me!”)

    And I got lucky and hit upon the perfect gift for my stepson. I’ve got him hooked on Field Notes and found a custom made holder. I really think Christmas is a better holiday when we try to find gifts made by hand.

  • ghostsniper December 28, 2017, 5:29 PM

    Well don’t take that out when it’s snowing, you know what that does to suede.
    If you HAVE to go out when it’s snowing you can turn it inside out, but then nobody will want to be be seen with you. (Seinfeld ref.)

  • David Spence December 25, 2018, 9:06 AM

    I am always “blown-away” by the writing here. It’s why I check in two or three times daily and a fresh post makes my heart beat a bit faster. I’ve read some of the recurring pieces dozens of times and never tire of them. Thanks for this terrific site and thanks to all who come here. Merry Christmas to all!

  • Sam L. December 25, 2018, 4:06 PM

    I have seen a tree with a fortress of presents around it, and two children’s backsides with a flurry of wrapping paper and boxes being ejected from them (well, along-side them). My wife and I decided that would NOT HAPPEN in our house.

  • Marica December 26, 2018, 4:50 AM

    You’re a good man, ghost.

  • jwm December 26, 2018, 7:35 AM

    I have so very much to be grateful for. Yesterday I stood on the back step, and looked at the morning sun lighting up my stand of San Pedro cactus. My black cat Skinny looked like a little panther on the block wall. For a moment I felt so incredibly wealthy. To have a home, a great marriage to a beautiful woman, those wonderful plants in the yard, my Skinny, and Buddy, the cats. To look forward to a gathering of friends and what little family we have. How had I come to such good fortune? All this so freely bestowed. Whatever could I have done to deserve it?
    And yet.
    All the joy was punctured, broken, off key. We lost our Littlecat the day before Christmas eve. She was the tiny feral I rescued from the school, and coaxed into being my little sweetie. Goddamn coyote got into the yard, and killed her right on the step where I stood looking at the morning. Nothing left but muddy paw prints on the step. She was ours for three hundred sixty days. Now Buddy and Skinny are on house arrest until mid day.
    I am not a tough guy. I may be an old man, but I feel like I’m a sixty-six year old kid who lost his kitty. It will pass, as all things do.


  • ghostsniper December 26, 2018, 2:57 PM

    JWM, I am sorry. That is tragic and in time it will lessen but now it is raw. Yes, Buddy and Skinny should be on permanent house arrest.

  • PA Cat December 26, 2018, 6:51 PM

    jwm– I too feel sorry about your loss of Littlecat. Judging from your description of your cactus, I’m on the other side of the country, where all cacti are strictly indoor plants and the outdoor trees this time of year are hunkered down in anticipation of the next nor’easter. But even here we have coyotes, and they take some sizable dogs as well as little kitties. My cats are on permanent house arrest per the vet’s advice as well as ghost’s. As for Littlecat, I hope your happy memories of her will be a comfort– and just maybe another little feral will find her way to you in the coming year.

  • Mike Anderson December 25, 2019, 11:09 AM

    Ah, the Mountain of Gifts! Even in the days of a happy family, this is a Really Bad Idea that sneaks up on the best of us. Back in the late lamented Twentieth Century, my small but extended family gathered at my parents’ home for a week of Christmas. Everyone brought a Santa’s bag of gifts for the younger nieces and nephews to add to the Mountain. Anticipation was high, and almost everyone chafed at my wife’s insistence that NO GIFT WILL BE OPENED BEFORE CHRISTMAS MORNING*. And so it was. After a hasty breakfast, the young’uns carefully distributed the gifts until the Mountain was no more. And then…and then, they lost their frickin’ minds in a paroxysm of torn paper, flying ribbons, upended boxes. Like starving hyenas tearing at a dead animal they ripped and tore and scattered gifts and wrapping in every direction, leaving a carpet of tinsely trash and broken toys everywhere. And then it stopped, and everyone quietly, abashedly started cleaning the mess. And then, Christmas was effectively over.

    Later in the day, the wife and I found a private moment to compare notes. Our consensus was one of disgust; greedy ungrateful children running amok. We resolved, then and there, that THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN in our home, ever. In the course of the next year, we chewed on the problem, and by the next Christmas, had devised Another Way.

    Nowadays, we celebrate Twelve Days of Christmas. Each day, everyone gets ONE present, to open, appreciate, and enjoy all day. There’s no carpet of ripped paper, no broken toys, no lost gift tag obscuring the answer to “Who gave me that cool gift?” No mess, no letdown, and the feeling of Christmas lasts well into the New Year. In fact, the twelfth gift is a relief, like that last day of vacation, when you need a bit of rest from all fun. And, the next day you can have a piece of King Cake!

    *The DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS DAY RULE does have a loophole. Anyone can open a gift at any time if the presenter says the magic words “Here, this is for you. IT IS NOT A GIFT.”

  • Julie December 25, 2019, 3:00 PM

    Gerard, as always it’s a pleasure to read this one again. I hope you are having a lovely Christmas, and all your readers as well.

    Ghost, somehow I missed your comment about my ostrich drawing, back when you made it. I am honored that you liked it enough to include it on your desktop. Thank you.

  • captflee December 25, 2020, 8:11 AM

    Merry Christmas, Gerard!

    Wonder what Andy Strassmeir is up to this morning…

  • Andrew R December 25, 2020, 9:11 AM

    One of my favorite things about Christmas with small children around is how some seem to love playing with the box the present came in rather than the present itself. I think what’s going on there is that the toy is what it is. But the box, the box could be so many wonderful things. So just sit back, watch & enjoy their joy.

    Merry Christmas Gerard, and also to all those who gather here at his web place.

  • flannelputz December 25, 2020, 9:53 AM

    To the AD commenter community:
    An update on the small child in the story above:
    It is Christmas Day 2020, and I will be seeing this kid for dinner today.
    He is a grown man of 43 years of age, Strong and smart.
    He recently married a wonderfull woman and they are incredibly happy.
    He has his dream job, as a staff writer for a big magazine , and is one of the happiest, most together people I know. We will be at his Mom’s house for Christmas.
    Thought you might like to hear a happy ending.
    Merry Christmas to all.

  • Drewbicle December 25, 2020, 10:49 AM

    Thank you for this and all that you do. In spite of all 2020 has thrown at us He shall reign.
    In January I lost a dear childhood friend, by May other friends were losing their jobs. My children missed a year of special memories and enforced uncertainty awaits. Hurricane season was worse than usual here but we’ve survived. A stolen election, a coming national divorce, all the awful things out there…nothing matters but our Lord. God bless

  • Andy Havens December 25, 2020, 2:54 PM

    Merry Christmas, Gerard, And happy tomorrow. Here’s hoping the second biggest birthday of the year is as rewarding as the first.

  • Jack Crevalle December 25, 2020, 4:39 PM

    May God send his blessings on Gerard and all the commentators. Merry Christmas to you all.

  • gwbnyc December 25, 2020, 7:44 PM

    Reading through I was reminded I’m the last of my immediate family, no one’s son, no one’s brother for now many years. We had a grandmother, disliked because she was dislikable. She didn’t drive and so had space for a loom in her garage on which woven items were made, and a Ruby treadle machine for sewing rag rugs. It had a heart-shaped cam made to it that when engaged wound the machine’s bobbins.


  • ghostsniper December 27, 2020, 4:47 AM

    When you come to the part where the kid falls, everybody forms their own mental image of what that looks like, no graphic depiction necessary. That’s what good writin’ does, it draws the reader in, takes them for a ride, and the readers mind fills in the blanks. Alfred Hitchcock was an advocate of giving the viewer just enough to spur their appetite, and the viewers own minds will do what they naturally do.

  • Dirk December 30, 2020, 8:35 AM

    The Real gift of Christmas, is in the giving, not receiving.


  • Hale Adams December 25, 2021, 9:10 AM

    Merry Christmas, Gerard, and to all the commenters here.

    I second Julie’s and Ghostsniper’s comments about Gerard’s story and the meaning of Christmas.

    And you’re a pretty good story-teller in your own right, Ghost.

    And thanks to Flannelputz for an update on “Bickerson, Jr.” — it’s good to know that he turned out OK.

    God bless you all.

    Hale Adams,
    Pikesville, People’s still-mostly-Democratic Republic of Maryland

  • James ONeil December 25, 2021, 9:56 AM

    God rest you merry.

  • Terry December 25, 2021, 6:12 PM

    This entire post and comments needs to be filed in “Best Of AD” location and read every year.

    Thank you Gerard and thank you to all commenters.

  • Mike Austin December 26, 2021, 5:17 AM

    Such out-of-control gift giving was a sign that those parents were trying to assuage their guilt; guilt over having spent less time with their children than they did pursuing careers, money, status, and the accumulation of stuff—like that house that doubled as a Medieval castle. Such frantic and rabid “gift giving” just added to the noise and frenzy of their lives. And it was all for naught. The family exploded like a miniature dying star, no doubt with alcohol-fueled recriminations all around.

    These days the thing I enjoy most about Christmas is the quiet, the Silent Night.