Unlike Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” I never had that ONE special Christmas gift that I dreamed of, obsessed over, and fantasized about. Growing up, I know I received a lot of great Christmas presents. Chatty Cathy. Baby Thumbelina. Little Miss No-Name. I just don’t remember opening them. Although my parents had their financial struggles, they always made Christmas special for their four children. Dad worked an extra job refereeing high school basketball games to bring in a little cash, and Mom was the queen of bargain shopping. The gifts may have been inexpensive, but there was an abundance under the tree.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved getting presents. Presents are fun fun fun. I was not above counting mine to make sure the number matched those of my siblings. And I was not above informing parental units of any present-inequality. And I always made a list of stuff I really really needed and wanted. So, why is it that not one present stands out in my mind as the ONE?
Because what I remember most about the Christmases of my youth, and even those as an adult, is what we did, not what I received.
Stored in happy memories are the family traditions: helping Mom and Dad drag the Christmas decorations out of the attic. Setting the Nativity on the dining room buffet table. Going with Dad (some years) to select the tree from the Kiwanis. Watching for him (some years) to pull into the driveway with the tree loaded on top of our station wagon. Decorating the tree with strings of blue lights (Mom’s choice – for some reason she rejected multi-colored lights). Hanging the very delicate eggshell ornaments Great Aunt Pearl made.
Memories of Mom making peanut brittle, toffee bars and enough cookies to feed the neighborhood. Memories of secrets and whispers and hiding places. Memories of snow and school vacations and sledding. Memories of hot chocolate and toast. Memories of caroling and sleigh bells. Memories of donating presents and food and serving others.
And Christmas lasting days and days and days. The piles of presents under our tree wrapped in newspaper are more memorable than what was wrapped. The act itself of unwrapping and finally seeing what was beneath the newspaper was thrilling and memorable. But most clear are the images of smiles, the sounds of laughter and “oh, thank you than you thank you,” not the images of toys or clothes.
It’s the experience of Christmas.
The best moments, the happy day moments were not the gifts, but the togetherness, the love of family. Even in the sporadic squabbles of siblings … even in the tiredness of late nights … even in the sometime stress of it all.
And with my own children, I wonder if they remember the gifts they received. Perhaps the Lego pirate ships. Perhaps the Nintendo Game gears. But mostly, I hope they remember what we did and not what they received. Assembling the wooden Nativity on the piano. Playing the Bing Crosby Christmas album. Rushing to peek in their “chomper” ornaments every morning. Reading the scriptures of Jesus’ birth from the Advent calendar. Memories of time, of experiences. The moments we spent as family. The moments we celebrated the best gift of love: the birth of our Savior.
Christmas should not center on what’s on our gift lists. For it’s not about what gifts we give or receive, but about what we do, what we experience.
Those are the happy day moments that matter.