And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. – Matthew 2:11
My mother’s friend Doris has a beautiful pine tree in her front yard--full branches, tall, and a precise triangular shape that comes with being a lone pine; a Christmas tree from the tips of its boughs to its solid trunk. Every winter, Doris has wanted to wrap that tree in lights for Christmas; but the tree is too big for a home job and professional lighting companies cost way too much, so it’s been bare.
This year, shortly before Thanksgiving, a man came to the door. “We’re here to do the tree in lights,” he said and there were two workmen already in the yard with strings of lights and ladders. Doris protested, and the man smiled. “Your son called. He says, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
In my mind, the perfect gift is one that honors both the giver and the gifted with something that the two especially share. Sometimes I can’t do it, I can’t come up with the gift that’s just right; and so a sweater or a tie goes forth instead, standing as some sort of inept apology on my part.
Henry, Ana, and Jay are buying presents this year for the first time. I announced the idea at dinner; and honestly, I was shocked at how they embraced it. Here I thought they were greedy little beggars, and really they just needed a little guidance about HOW to give presents. Since that dinner, they’ve been working away at household chores in order to make money (loading the dishwasher has been deemed the grossest and shoveling snow the most lucrative). I’ve been impressed by their desire to give. I must admit that these three are much more thoughtful than I gave them credit for.
Ana put so many people on her giving list that she asked if she could go on the backside of the paper. Henry realized on his own that the right gift to give Grandma was Christmas Peeps. (This was after she ate most of Jay’s Halloween Peeps.) Jay listed his best friend Joseph first on his list instead of the people that I was suggesting. Each, in his or her way this season, has practiced a new-found thoughtfulness; and it’s been surprising and gratifying.
‘What to give’ has been quite the topic of conversation. We’ve talked about the best presents that we’ve ever given. I love telling the story of buying my brother the Duckhorn Merlot, how I traversed Napa Valley with my erstwhile friend Kim in a desperate search for this illusive wine. Eric tells the story of the year he bought his father eight different colors of duct tape, how he couldn’t wait to give the King of Grey Tape a color assortment.
The special gift is often that way. It’s a touch of whimsical inspiration, or it’s marked by extreme effort, and maybe it’s accompanied by a long story; but most often it’s based on insider knowledge. Whatever it takes, you know it when you find it, something that you can give with love and a particular understanding of the receiver. Often it’s the one thing no one else can or will give.
So I think of Doris this year and know that I won’t equal the thoughtfulness of her son’s perfect gift--most probably in my whole life. She can’t take it with her, this ephemeral gift; but that lighted tree will make this Advent season brighter, longer, and prettier as it shines a path to her last Christmas. And that’s what makes this gift so brilliant because, you see, Doris is dying. Everyone who knows her accepts this truth in some manner whether that is tolerable or not. It’s hard and it makes most gift ideas superfluous. It hitches my breath when I think of it, but then there are those lights on that pine tree, which she can see out her front window. I imagine this has her contemplating her son, Christmas, and gifts. I find I must smile at such perfection--even if my lips tremble.