by Julia Sneden
I read somewhere that we have the Magi to thank for the tradition of bearing gifts at this time of the year, but I suspect that like many other Christmas customs, gift giving has its roots in pagan times. Surely the Celts' celebration of winter solstice, or the Saturnalia of ancient Rome, or other assorted gatherings of the ancient world included the giving and receiving of gifts. It's an urge deeply imbedded in human nature. For that matter, anyone who has ever received a dog's gift of a proudly retrieved stick, or, from a cat, the much less welcome gift of the remains of a mouse or bird left on the master's doorstep, knows that gift giving extends to the rest of the animal world, too.
I once knew an outrageous and utterly charming elderly woman who, at parties, would hold us young folk spellbound by reciting the provenance of her dazzling jewelry collection. "Now this brooch," she would say, pointing to a spray of diamonds, "was the gift of a maharajah who admired tall women. And the ear bobs came from Lord La-Di-Dah, who scandalized the New York Navy Ball in 1913 by dancing every other dance with me, all evening long." And then, fixing us with a piercing look, she'd grin wickedly. "I've always heard that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but don't you think receiving is a lot more fun?"
There have been lots of memorable Christmas gifts in my life, both given and received. I remember vividly that the year I was six, I noticed my mother's fondness for a musical powder box that stood on the cosmetics counter of our local drugstore. I relayed the information to my father, who then hatched a rather intricate plan whereby my brother would somehow distract my mother while he and I purchased the music box. The store even wrapped our gift, and to this day I can see the bright blue paper, covered with winking white Santa faces in red hats - perhaps a patriotic nod to wartime, all that red white and blue. Somehow we sneaked the parcel out of the drugstore and into the car, and then into the house where I was allowed to hide it under my skirted dresser. Our collusion was even more thrilling than the present, I think, but Mother cried most satisfactorily when she opened it. The music box sat on her dresser for more than fifty years.
I remember the Christmas that I was wild to have a bike. I was seven years old, and the world was at war, which meant that metal and rubber products went to military uses. No one was making toys or bicycles. Somehow my mother found a secondhand bike that she painted a hideous yellow and put under the tree. I can still recall my dismay when I saw it. It was a bike, all right, and I didn't mind that it had a few dents or that the paint was still sticky in some places. But it was a boy's bike, a smaller version of my brother's, not at all what I had had in mind. I felt like crying, but I knew I couldn't. So I put a good face on it, and rode the darned bike all over the neighborhood and dared anyone to laugh at me. No one did, probably because we were all making do with what we had, in those days. And a couple of years later, when the war was over, there was another bike under the tree, this time a dazzling, brand new blue and red girl's bike with a basket and a bell.
There were homemade presents, too. One of my grandmothers had a wealthy aunt who showed up occasionally to take her for drives in a chauffeured burgundy Lincoln. The auntie always brought a box of See's candy "for the children." When we had demolished the candy, my grandmother would save the box, and every Christmas, each of us would receive a See's candy box from Grandma. No matter how you prayed that this time it would hold candy, you opened it and found stuffed prunes. Grandma had filled the prunes with chopped dates and nuts, a sticky, cloying mixture that she further sweetened by rolling the prunes in powdered sugar. I always said a polite thank you, and disposed of them when no one was looking by throwing them over the steep edge of the hill on which we lived. Almost sixty years later, my father and I were reminiscing and laughing about those prunes, and suddenly he said: "I'd give a lot to have one now," and just as suddenly, we both were crying.
Another well-meant homemade present was a pair of itchy, hand-knitted bed socks, which were supposed to keep your feet warm while you slept. I, who never had any trouble with cold feet, would don them obediently so that Grandma could see that I wore them, and then, as soon as I was under the covers, kick them off and relegate them to the furthest bottom corner of the bed.
It's embarrassing to think back over the sheer volume of presents I've received over the years. A few stand out: a beautiful, winter-white skirt of soft wool embroidered with pale blue and silver snowflakes that I longed for but knew we couldn't afford, that turned up miraculously anyway...an opal ring that my great aunt had promised me when I was sixteen...from my husband, a pair of books by Carmen Bernoz de Gasthold, the first Christmas we were married...a present my eldest son selected all by himself for me when he was about eight, blue ornament earrings paid for from his allowance...the Double Crostic books another son gives me yearly...a copy of "Babar The King" in French, brought me by my adult middle son...photos of my grandchildren taken and compiled into a little book by my clever daughter-in-law.
But the very best gifts that we have both given and received aren't gifts that can be wrapped. When my children were small, we lived several hundred miles away from their grandparents and great grandmother. Each year, we would pack up the children and the presents and drive 11 hours to spend the holiday with them. It was the best gift we could offer.
Our own children gave us the same gift, traipsing across country with their three small children so that Grandma and Grandad and Great Grandmary would have a Merry Christmas. This summer they moved East, and are now just 90 miles away, so their trip will be considerably shorter. But I remember how hard it is to leave one's own Christmas tree, and how inconvenient it is to travel with children. It's still a considerable sacrifice to leave home on Christmas Day. It is, however, what families do for each other. Their presence is without any question the best present in the world.