Christmas is a time of giving. What we don’t always remember is that it’s also a time of receiving, and that receiving is itself a gift. It’s hard to receive. I think it’s sometimes as hard to receive as it is to ask for help. Some people naturally know how to make a production of it: They open the present slowly, shaking the box, pulling off ribbon with excruciating attention, examining the paper mischievously, wondering what’s inside . . . followed by a cheer of delight. But others—I know a man who just can’t manage it. As the son of an alcoholic, he was never taught to break into a smile, eyes crinkling with pleasure, much less would he think to leap to his feet and give the giver a kiss at receiving “just what I wanted!”
You may never see your gift displayed or spoken of again, and by his grumpiness you don’t know whether it gave pleasure or disgust. It takes all the pleasure out of giving. Not everyone is by nature exuberant. But this man is an extreme example. Another person might cast down her eyes in shy embarrassment, or slide the present under a pillow in an effort to take the attention off herself; and still you know she liked the gift.
On the other hand I know a little girl who, without any training at all, knows everything about how to receive. “Oh!” she cries in surprise, her face lighting up. “This is the just the best!” And even if you know it isn’t, that you had to buy a less expensive version than you wanted, her pleasure is so infectious that you feel the warmth lift up your frozen heart. Not everyone is enthusiastic. Sometimes a gentle smile, a quiet nod is enough to tell you that your gift hit home, and moments such as these are to be treasured as well.
It’s remarkable (and I find it hilarious!) how giving is often fraught with ancient and historical perils that lie under the surface like sunken shipwrecks ready to stove us in. I once had a boyfriend who broke up with me every first week in December, and came back in the new year. It took three years for me to recognize that for him the perils of gift-giving reared so high that he found it easier to avoid the whole issue, even if it meant months of work later in reconciliation. (He was another who found it hard to receive, preferring to shrug gifts off with a hidden smile.) You learn to read the subtext.
Christmas offers its own opportunities for clumsy moves.
One year, early in my marriage, when we had very little money, my husband gave me kitchen pots for Christmas. I burst into tears. I thought he was saying I should stay in the kitchen, when what I would have liked was a new typewriter ribbon, or a ream of paper for my novel. I didn’t know he wanted the pots for himself. I didn’t know he really liked to cook.
The fact is that often we give what we would like to receive. I shall never forget the look of longing on the face of little Sammy Smith, when he gave me, at my fifth birthday party, a bag of marbles. At the time (age five, give me a break), I didn’t have the sophistication to ask him to “Keep them for me, so I don’t lose them.” I hope I received the marbles in ways that made him happy.
But often we just feel inadequate.
When my brother was about four and had just learnt that people, as well as Santa, gave presents on Christmas (imagine!), he decided to give one to our older sister. He loved her more than anyone. He had five cents. In those days you could buy things at the Five-and-Dime for five cents. My brother spent a long time looking for something he thought would please her and came away with an enormous ball of rubber bands. It cost five cents. He didn’t know about wrapping paper yet. On Christmas morning, he slipped the rubber bands happily into the pocket of his wrapper and trotted downstairs. We all waited in the hall, while Daddy entered the closed living room to see if Santa had come, then threw open the doors with a joyous flourish. Four-year-old Georgie stood stunned: the lights, the tree with glittering ornaments, the stockings, the presents in piles . . . . We raced to our loot.
He never gave his present.
Years later, when he went away to college, our mother found it. “I was cleaning your room. What in the world were you doing with a gigantic ball of rubber bands in your top drawer?” Only then did the story come out, to warm sympathetic laughter and teary delight.
In our family someone was sure to make a gaffe at Christmas. How else do you learn forgiveness? How else do you learn the meaning of real love? I remember when my brother, now eighteen, forgot to buy a present for his girlfriend. “Don’t worry,” said our mother, rummaging through her things. “Here, you can give her perfume. I have so many I’ve never even opened them.” You can guess what his present to Mummy was that year.
As for receiving gracefully, some people seem constitutionally incapable of the endeavor. I’m not talking about writing thank-you notes, which is passing out of fashion now, but just the one- on-one acceptance of a gift. One of my aunts was an extreme example. If you gave her something, she would accept it with the graciousness of a true Southern Lady (followed by a letter), but later you would hear how or when she had given it away.
One year I decided to give her something so simple that she would choose to keep it, something so personal that it would express my love. In pottery class I made a tiny, pretty pie plate with rippled edges, and in it I cooked a mince pie. I was infinitely pleased! It was pretty. It was inexpensive. It was consumable. A week later, she handed me back the plate. “Here, I don’t need this, and you’ll want it back. I gave the pie to Carol.” (her daughter in law). I wanted to burst out laughing. She was not dismissing me—or even the gift: I think she never felt herself worthy. At any rate, she kept nothing. You would never see your gift again.
Love is so tender, so easily misunderstood. You mustn’t allow feelings to be hurt. Christmas teaches forgiveness, patience, tolerance, generosity, and, if you are lucky, the deepest connection at the heart.
For many, Christmas is also a time of loneliness, disappointment, sorrow, heartbreak. For the less fortunate it can be shattering.
When my father was a little boy, his family would celebrate a clamorous, Dickensian Christmas morning, but in the afternoon, after lunch, his mother would come to the children. “Choose which gift you want to keep,” she said, “and we’ll take the rest to the poor children in need.” Not only did the children have to choose the one gift they could keep, but they walked their new presents themselves down the hill to where the fire department collected for the poor. They gave their presents away. My grandmother was teaching an important lesson in charity and generosity and goodness, but it must have been hard for a little boy. I don’t think it hurt him in any way. My father was happy by nature, and fortunately he did not require of us children the same discipline that he’d undergone. Moreover, he knew excellently well how to both give and receive a gift with delight.
All his adult life my father bought himself one special gift for Christmas, and this was the one he always opened last, tantalizing us all. He knew there is something almost as wonderful in anticipating a gift as in holding it in your hands! That’s part of receiving, part of being attentive, part of tasting the present moment—every moment—as a gift.
The gift he gave himself came from Santa, and it was always opened with us children watching from our burial in piles of paper and boxes. He would remove the ribbon and wrapping slowly, and as the paper fell, the gift came clear, his face would light up, as if he had no idea what it was – “Look what I got!” he’d shout, and we’d all crowd around, infected by his delight.
© 2019 Sophy Burnham.