Along with all the glorious choral music of the season, which we’ve praised recently at T&S, Christmas is also a time of gift-giving. We make long lists of presents to give to those we love, trying hard to fulfill everyone’s Christmas wishes. Lots of toys, clothes, CDs, books and flannel pajamas get purchased and carefully wrapped. Some years bigger-ticket items like electronic equipment, jewelry or even furniture are given. Still, despite our best efforts it may be rare that we give gifts that are really cherished because they speak love.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that gift-giving is an art. Like any art, it requires keen observation, patience, creativity, reflection and practice. Although I make continual efforts to improve my skills in this area, I usually fail. For example, last year I decided to give four of my siblings abelskiver pans. Originally I thought the idea was a stroke of genius since the pans would recall special abelskiver birthday breakfasts from our childhood. I hunted down the old recipe my Mom always used and then did some research to try to find the best quality old- fashioned pans. In the end, however, the cast iron pans were difficult to wrap because of their odd shape and really expensive to send because they were so heavy. What’s worse, since the pan is inconvenient to store and abelskivers are fattening and time-consuming to make, the pans are hardly used.
Even though my own attempts at gift-giving are usually unsuccessful, I know a couple of master gift-givers. For years among my siblings there has been an unspoken competition at Christmastime over who can give the best gift. For lack of a better measurement, somewhere along the way we decided that whoever touches my Mom enough to make her cry on Christmas morning wins. My brother, Eliot, achieves this honor almost every year. However, the Christmas that stands out in memory was the year of the barf ball.
In grade school they used to have us make Christmas tree ornaments around the holidays. Usually these ornaments were decorated photos of our 6 year-old selves or plaster of Paris hand prints. One year, however, some teacher must have forgotten about this project and had to scramble to come up with something at the last minute. Instead of endearing keepsake ornaments, my sister Julie’s teacher had decided it would be sufficient if they just glued different colored beans on Styrofoam balls. I think the teacher intended for the kids to arrange the beans in some sort of repeating pattern, but Julie, understandably bored with the tedious activity, just rolled the ball in glue and then randomly in some of the remaining beans instead. The result was not exactly a beautiful sight to behold. Eliot immediately dubbed it the â€œbarf ballâ€? and his description was apt. But, for some reason Julie Ann was attached to her creation. Every year as we decorated the tree a painful battle ensued between them over whether to hang the barf ball. Of course, we’d all reluctantly acquiesce to her hanging it with all our other homemade treasures in the end despite Eliotâ€™s attempts to move the barf ball to the back of the tree.
Then one year some mice got into our basement. They ate through our food storage and found the barf ball too. The glue-covered beans were such a hit that very little remained of the ornament. Inconsolable at her loss that next Christmas, Julie was certain that Eliot had somehow been behind the mice invasion. Though Eliot was gleeful and the rest of us somewhat relieved that the barf ball battle was finally over, Julie never forgot this incident.
The next year, in one of his finer gift-planning moments, Eliot decided to redeem himself. He went to the craft store, bought some glue and a Styrofoam ball and recreated the barf ball. Eliotâ€™s gift to my little sister that Christmas morning made us all cry. We were moved not because it was valuable or pretty, but because it represented the tenderness and compassion of a brother for his little sister and the mending of a wound. The barf ball has since become one of our most priceless family ornaments and always gets pride of place on the family tree.
Eliot has taught me many times over that the way to give gifts that touch people is to give gifts of meaning-gifts that reflect your relationship, recall shared experiences, and indicate you know who someone is and what matters to them. For these reasons there are some gifts that can only be given to us by those who have known and loved us well for a long time.
What are some of the presents youâ€™ve given or received in Christmases past that have expressed the art of gift-giving?