Over the past 53 (ulp) Christmases, many gifts have appeared under my tree. In fact, looking back, there have been far too many gifts — many more than any one person deserves. There have probably been some duds along the way, but quite honestly, I can’t name one.
But the best Christmas gift? I thought that would be easy to name, but after carefully combing the cobwebby recessess of my brain, it simply is impossible to name the best. So okay, I’ll go with “some” of the best ones, or at least those I remember. You probably have your own list. In fact, sit down and try to assemble a list. I’d like to read yours.
Let’s go way back to the beginning. I don’t know when this gift first made it to my house — you’d have to ask my mom. The gift was a Ruthie doll, or at least that’s what I called her. Ruthie was a pretty straightforward doll, fairly small, did nothing other than look blankly at me and listen to my darkest secrets. She didn’t walk, talk, pee, skate, or do flips. She just sat there, waiting patiently for me to change her clothes — none of which came from a store. All were handmade by my mother. But she had one very unusual characteristic. Every year for about four years, she reappeared under the tree with a new head of hair. I never understood how this happened, but that doll — once a dark brunette — became a blonde, raven-haired, maybe even a redhead. I’ve forgotten all the colors. Sometimes she had short curly hair, other times long and straight. Oddly, though I gave up playing with her, I never disposed of her. Somewhere in our attic, she reclines, shorn of most of her hair. Poor Ruthie.
I must have had a thing for dolls because somewhere along the way I insisted on an upgrade to a Chatty Cathy. You pulled a string at the back of her neck and she spoke stunning phrases like “Hi, I’m Chatty Cathy”. My parents finally broke down and got me one. I was ecstatic. She talked all day long. For one day. Then she became mute. We returned her to the store, and received a replacement who, like her predecessor, joined the family conversations for a day before losing her voice. Disgusted, I suggested we trade her in on a good pair of ice skates. They didn’t speak but they did glide smoothly over the ice…for a very long time.
Then there was the year my brother, Tom, had scarlet fever. He was housebound for weeks and unable to do any Christmas shopping. He was just two years older than me, and we often did our shopping together at Crow’s Five and Dime. That year, I didn’t expect anything from him. But there, under the Christmas tree, was a pair of red barrettes that I had coveted on one of our Saturday forays to Crow’s. He must have finagled Mother into doing some shopping for him.
Oddly, I always worried that someone would give me something I didn’t like. What would I do? How should I react? One year I was so concerned that my parents hadn’t gotten me the particular item I’d specified. Early Christmas morning, while the rest of the household was in slumberland, I sneaked to the living room, unwrapped the gift I thought was the right one, took a peek and rewrapped it. Whew. It was the right one. I’ve kept that secret for a very long time.
Along the way, there were many gifts that provoke an odd, nostalgic feeling. The hand-made green gingham bikini — my first — the year we opened gifts early before heading to Florida for a visit with our grandparents; a blue knit nightshirt that my dad ordered from LLBean — a few years before he died — and which I insist on keeping despite the fact that it is falling apart; homemade books of “gift certificates” from my daughters — promising to clean the bathroom, give me a big hug, or wash the dishes. Wonder if I could still cash in on those? There are no expiration dates. Up in the attic is a Raggedy Ann that my grandmother made when I was a child. That year she made four of them for me and my three youngest cousins. She ran out of time and embroidered a red heart only on Claire’s. Years later, she added a heart to mine.
As I write this, I lcan see one of the most amazing surprises my husband has come up with as a Christmas gift — an antique bread-rising box with the original finish, scratches and all. It came from his great-grandfather’s bakery. Like the antique rolling pin in our kitchen — from the same bakery — it reminds me of what really matters to me at Christmas.
Sure, gifts are great. The best ones are those from the heart — those inexpensive items that took time to find or make and were chosen by someone who loves me enough to know what I really like.