Life Gifts and Christmas Gifts

This is the season of giving gifts and the season of remembering life’s gifts.

I can’t count the times I’ve been asked what I want, can you? It is always the same answer for me, the one the the listener is never happy with – I don’t want anything. I’ve given this inner feeling to one of my characters, a grandmother talking to her very young granddaughter in the new short story “Last Birthday”. It is coming out in Mike Macartney’s new short story collection “Cassandra’s Roadshow” this winter – this story was based on memories of family and the issue of gift-giving.

At Christmas times I remember childhood, as many of us do, from the scents of pine,from fragments of familiar church songs, from colors and sparkle. But when it comes to gifts, what I wanted at this time of year was never the question. In an odd way it was the anti-question. If I said I wanted something around that time of year – and I was a talkative child so it did slip out now and again – I was sure not to get it, as a deliberate decision on the part of both my parents. In some families asking if Santa is real is taboo, in our family asking for “things” was. I assumed it was to keep me from being annoying. It probably had a better purpose, and certainly had a better effect in the long run.

I’m continually surprised at life’s gifts. Life has given me so much more than I ever would have thought possible, let alone wished for, that “wanting” has become completely irrelevant. When I think about life’s gifts, I enter a steady state of wonder.

A child’s Christmas in my childhood home, as I remember it, did not mean making a wish list for Santa. It meant making cookies for Santa, if Santa came into it at all. I did a lot of baking to share, making little things for gifts, writing poems for cards. But really, my main memories of Christmas in childhood are not of gifts or toys or Santa, but of a quiet place about two miles from our house – the neighborhood church. It is a small wooden structure with towering stained glass windows. The church would be packed on Christmas Eve and with the lights turned off then, the most beautiful moment – the lighting of the candles, small white candles we each held in our hands. The tall, the short, the old, the young, all of us held a wax candle and lit them one from another all the way around the small church. Being part of this congregation in the interior of the church as it filled with candle light gave a feeling of being immersed in hope. We sang, and I thought we looked like a constellation of stars in the night sky.

Afterwards, the lights came on and each child passed by the big man wearing red on the way out – the man who rang the heavy iron bell on top of the church on Sundays. He gave an orange and a colorful box the size of an orange wrapped with a white ribbon tied in a bow to each small child. It was a gift, yes, one natural and one sweet, and yet I’m quite sure the joy we carried in our little hearts on the way out came mostly from the sharing of the light and all the love.

What are your happiest memories of the holiday from childhood?

5 thoughts on “Life Gifts and Christmas Gifts

  1. The Christmas I was 9 I had mumps (who remembers mumps these days?), so was pretty sick, and confined to bed (a bed I shared with my grandmother, a widow, who raised me for a couple of years).

    What I remember of that Christmas was not really the part where I was sick, but the part where my grandmother’s brother-in-law brought me a box of tangerines, all individually wrapped in crinkly, gold tissue paper. They nestled in their crate like precious jewels. Tasty, juicy, choice.

    In Scotland, in the 1970s, tangerines were a rarity, and only available (at cost!) at Christmas. I savored those fruits, which were about all I could manage to eat, swollen as I was. They seemed the most exotic, extravagant, incredible thing in the world to me.

    Occasionally, now, at this time of year, I come across the odd, individually wrapped citrus at the market. The paper seems less crinkly, and not at all gold. But I remember the sore little girl and how extraordinary it felt to receive that box of tangerines. I remember how it felt to feel lavished upon.

  2. Barbara thank you for this story, I can see you on the stage with Dolly, a wonderful image. I think you and I recieved the same Christmas sweets (though I never knew quite where they came from). Thanks for the visit.

  3. Hi Jennifer. Thank you for sharing your memories here. My happiest memories of Christmas weren’t the gifts, but one of them was the anticipation of them as my sister and I played board games in her bedroom waiting for Santa Claus to put the gifts out (in our house we celebrated on Christmas Eve). My heart thinks back happily on seeing the Christmas windows in New York City eating chestnuts, waving at the Santa who came on the town firetruck, and watching Christmas specials, including an episode of Little House on the Prairie when Laura and Mary get heart shaped cookies, a shiny penny, tin cup and peppermint stick. It’s funny how little I remember “things” at all.

  4. When I was in Kindergarten or first grade my classmates and I stood in line to spell out MERRY CHRISTMAS and say our individual parts, “M is for …..” during the all-school Christmas program. I was convinced that the little kids who got a laugh from the audience by standing in each other’s places did it on purpose.

    A year or so later I was asked to memorize the Christmas story and tell it to a cloth doll as I sat in a small rocking chair on the edge of the school stage and said, “I want to tell you, Dolly, about a story you should know….” I still remember seeing people in the darkened auditorium from the corners of my eyes.

    In our church the children received small brown paper sacks filled with hard candy in various shapes and colors and chocolate candies with white interiors. My parents often helped with putting the candies in the sacks. The kind of candies and the process of moving them from cardboard packing boxes into the sacks never varied from one year to the next.

    At home my three younger sisters and I received our share of a few needed or wanted gifts, plus apples, oranges and nuts in shells in our stockings. For many years there was also a wooden crate of 24 bottles of 7-Up under the tree. Sometimes one of us would share a bottle with the other three girls. We would stoop or bend down to eye level with the four glasses to make sure there was exactly an even amount in each glass.

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