I’m finding it hard to “put away” Christmas this year. Of course, there is the profound idea that Christmas is a year round celebration from the heart … yet still, there is something about the season, the lights, the nativity, the gatherings, that – while stressful on one hand – is paradoxically peaceful on the other.
I will miss the festive decor, music, and gatherings of the season. I will not miss the commercials (or the onslaught of Hallmark’s Christmas-equals-romance stories). Okay, I’ll fess up … there were a few commercials (and even Hallmark movies – Christmas in Conway) that owned me. My first favorite was of the couple excitedly decorating their apartment with all the trimmings (newly purchased from Kohls, I believe), but then we realize it’s not THEIR apartment. They were surprising an elderly neighbor.
My other favorite is the Apple commercial with a passive, stereo-typical teen who remains aloof during all the festivities, messing with his phone. Only, he WASN’T simply messing with his phone. He was secretly recording a home movie which left his mom and grandma (and me) in tears.
The commercial that I loathed was T.J. Maxx’s “The Gifter.
All right, “loathed” is a strong word, but next to the overkill on “Stuffies”, “The Gifter” capitalized on all of the stress, pressure, and materialism that has robbed so many of my Christmases. Mostly, self-induced because I’ve been prone to be a people pleaser way too many times in my life, “The Gifter” is who I am fighting to no longer be.
The Gifter gets all the perfect gifts, fulfills everyone’s wish list, and does so with name brands and astute bargain hunting, while smiling the whole time. Because that’s what Christmas is really about, right?
While I appreciate knowing what members of my family want/need, I think encouraging little kids to write elaborate wish lists to Santa is a rather dangerous idea. Who am I kidding? It’s a stupid idea. I can say that, because I’ve done it.
Aren’t we materialistic enough? Not only do we entitle kids with the power to demand “things” they want and expect, there is also dealing with the disappointment when it doesn’t happen. I think of one miserable merry Christmas when a much desired horse didn’t show up in our small, barnless back yard (very unlike Lincoln Steffen’s story, which I think I was brainless enough to read to my kids). No matter how much we had tried to prepare our daughter for the impossibility of her request, she was certain that a Christmas miracle would take place. Much as she tried to hide the disappointment from us, the memory of her tears still makes me feel the ultimate failure.
A similar thing happened a few years later when I had to run next door to a neighbors to borrow a roasting pan. A tearful pre-teen boy met me at the door that Christmas morning, broken hearted because Santa didn’t bring the new gaming system he so craved. What he didn’t understand is that “Santa Mom” and “Santa Dad” were struggling to keep a new business and their home mortgage afloat.
I’ve tried to impress my kids with the fact that gift giving is really about the one giving, the Giver. The best gifts are not those checked off of a list of wants, desires, and TV commercials … but are initiated from the Giver. It is the Giver who starts the process … The Giver hands over a self-designed expression of lover… an offering of relationship.
Think about how Christmas got its start, “For God so loved the world that He gave …”
In stark contrast to “the Gifter”, I think of a Giver I knew a long time ago.. She was one of the surplus of little old ladies in my home town. I can think of my mom once saying that Farmington was made up deserted building and old ladies. I don’t think she was far off.
This little lady had somehow concocted a gift-giving formula that far outshines “the Gifter” ….
There were two things that I quickly learned about Mrs. Edith Warren. She was the nicest lady alive in my six-year-old world, and she screamed with the force of an angry drill sergeant.
Maybe a full five foot two, withered, this petite woman with coarse, faded hair gently wrapped into a bun, had a habit of standing five inches from your face and bellowing. I had every right to feel terror. Fortunately, the softness in her eyes and the hand cupped over her ear help me to understand that the vocal avalanche was divorced from anger. Mrs. Warren couldn’t hear … not much, anyway.
My earliest thoughts of Mrs. Warren are connected to hearing her scream “GOOD MORNING!” at us as she hobbled down the road, dragging a rusty cart behind her.
The cart made me hungry. We knew that she had it stuffed with goodies like Snickerdoodles, cinnamon-loaded applecake, and homemade peanut brittle. Or there would be apples, potatoes, fat zucchinis, Gladiolas, Gypsophila, and Sweet Williams. The woman loved to bake and to grow things. She loved sharing even more. It was a perk to be Mrs. Warren’s neighbor and the first ones on her path of benevolence. Although everyone in our little farm town was subject to her visits, I think our family benefited most. Part of the reason may have been her son Ernie.
Ernie, a likable, soft-spoken man with a gentle round face permanently fixed under a cap (picture Elmer Fudd) never married. He lived at home, too shy to pursue a wife and children, so I think we became the substitute grandchildren. Mrs. Warren did countless things for us; my favorite was the invitation for a “play day” in which my sister and I sat with her and worked on the same puzzle repeatedly. I still picture the gray mule surrounded by red petunias and the two or three rebellious, dog-eared pieces that we had to wrestle into place each time. She also let us share in her personal stash of home-made peanut brittle. Year-round, it was her favorite treat, and she always had some stored in a coffee tin, ready for company.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at what took place in the late-afternoon of a Christmas Eve Day. Nearly 12, I had begged my way out of a last minute shopping frenzy at the Variety Store in Tekoa. There was triumph in being all alone in our two story house, queen of my own time for an hour or so … until the ruckus at the door, that is.
The gray of the disappearing afternoon felt heavy, much too much like night as I looked anxiously out the window. Who …?
I was immediately wishing that I hadn’t pilfered and read a neighbor’s copy of In Cold Blood when I helped her move some bags of books and magazines to the Goodwill pile in her garage.
The sight of Mrs. Warren with one of Ernie’s bright orange hunting caps pulled down around her ears allowed me to breath again.
I wondered how had she managed our icy steps in the weather? As I battled the stubborn front door and forced it open, a blast of frigid air punched my cheeks. I looked out to see that not only had she climbed the two separate sets of steps to get to our door, but the cart had come with her.
“WHERE’S YOUR MOTHER?” She shouted, reaching out to brush away rebel bangs from my eyes.
“THEY ARE JUST OVER IN TEKOA!” I had learned to shout back. “BUT YOU ARE WELCOME TO COME IN AND WAIT. SHOULDN’T BE LONG.”
“NO – NOTHING’S WRONG. I JUST WANTED TO GIVE HER SOME THINGS. YOU BE A DEAR AND PASS THEM ALONG.”
She pushed a bulging brown bag into my hands. I could see perfect, round grease circles on the outside. Ever frugal, she had once substituted it for a cookie cooling rack; now it served as a large gift bag full of mounds wrapped in Christmas paper.
Before I could shout, “THANK YOU!” or insist she stay, she was already half way down the steps.
“THANK YOU! THANK YOU, MRS. WARREN!!” The words fell like tiny ice cubes at my feet. She was already out of range, yet amazingly, without looking back in my direction, she stuck her hand into the air in a backwards wave.
“Wow. Look at all this stuff!” There were six or seven packages in the bag. “Did we get them anything?” I wondered.
I pondered if I should leave the bag on the table for Mom or put the gifts under the tree? Truthfully, I just wanted to handle the packages and guess what was inside.
Soft. Squishy. Four of the packages felt like cloth … probably socks or home-made potholders. Well … I suppose they could wait.
The next two gifts were wrapped identically in creased paper littered with snowmen; one package betrayed cinnamon. “Apple cake.” The other rattled slightly. “Please let it be peanut brittle!! And let it be a batch with the baking soda stirred all the way through” (The bitter taste of one or two bad batches still lingered.)
A final gift was heavy and unwrapped. A religious book. “Oh, well, Mom might like it.” It dutifully went next to the four squishy parcels. I hadn’t thought much about it until then, but all of Mrs. Warren’s gifts to us came with a book, magazine, or brochure of some sort … all seeming to have something to do with Jesus.
“Oh … no …. she … didn’t …” This muttering from Mom at the tail end of Christmas morning as she watched us tear open packages of mittens, knitted in tri-colored shades of green, blue, pink, and purple respectively. “She thinks I don’t have the sense to get you kids out the door with gloves on.”
Mom’s reference was to the battles involved in getting the four of us to the bus stop each morning – a location which happened to be in full view of Mrs. Warren’s front window. There never seemed enough time to scramble for matching gloves or mittens or even a hat, so we stood, stamping back and forth, blowing the cold off of our fingers as the bus crawled into town. The truth was that we probably owned 20 or 30 pairs of gloves and mittens between us.
“People in this town will think I can’t cloth you properly.”
Mrs. Warren likely didn’t have a thought about Mom’s parenting skills. She simply had been paying attention and liked giving gifts that fit apparent needs. This was her way of saying that she cared about us. Her own idea, time, and resources made the point. Now THAT is exquisite gift-giving!
We weren’t wowed with those mittens at the time, but interestingly, they, and the book, are the only gifts I remember from that Christmas. Mrs. Warren struck an unending chord … gift giving is an expression of love inspired from the heart of the Giver … her gift was something she wanted me to have … not something I expected or demanded from her.
This certainly puts a different spin on “The Gifter” toted in those T.J. Maxx commercials. Maybe I can focus on being more of a Giver rather than Gifter.
I hope Christmas lingers a bit longer for each of us … maybe all the paper and ornaments are already put away, and the pine needles all swept up … but in small moments of gifts from the heart may you find peace … may you find Christmas year round and a truly rewarding New Year in such pursuits.
Oh! Wait! Back to commercials for a second. Did anyone else happen to catch that there were two versions of The Planters Peanuts ad where “Richard the Nut Cracker” shows up? One of them was quite creepy, and sadly, played right into my sense of humor. Okay, that leads to a good goal for me for 2014 … fewer Hallmark movies and commercials.