Sometimes, the best gifts are things that don’t cost anything, or have sentimental value well beyond the monetary value. In the spirit of this season, CATALYST staff and writers reflect on those things that keep them feeling loved long after the wrapping is gone.
The day I was born, I was given a small stuffed bear called Paddington. I gummed and later chewed on his short black felt ears until they were no more. One year, my mom told me I should put him out on the fireplace mantle on Christmas Eve. “Santa Claus,” she said, “can fix his ears and make them new again.” Sure enough, come Christmas morning, there sat Paddington on the fireplace mantle with a new pair of perfectly shaped half-moon ears. I couldn’t believe Santa had actually done it.
The best gift of Christmas was the annual upheaval of our buttoned-down formal living room to accommodate a real spruce.
We lived in the Bahamas, so the tree had to travel a long, long way to get to us, and it was a challenge to pick one from the lot that wasn’t already half-dead, but there was nothing better to me than decorating that tree with our real glass baubles and the tinsel strands and the three strings of colored lights, and crowning it with the cardboard-and-aluminum-foil star I had made with my mother back when I was about four years old.
My favorite place was the safe little corner behind the tree. I would lie on the floor on my back, fallen needles pricking my neck, and look up through the branches while the impossible geometries made by the blinking, candy-colored lights brought the Universe into ineffable harmony. I did this every year until I was too big to fit behind the tree! It was a world within a world—ephemeral, but one that never really left me.
As an adult artist, I was immediately drawn to working with LED lights, and I’ve been trying to share my “realm of light” with other people ever since.
—Alice Bain Toler
At 18 years old, I spent Christmas with my first love, who gifted me a custom-made pendant with a beautiful sea blue Larimar gemstone at the center to represent the power of the feminine; a deep red rhodolite garnet to awaken self worth on the spiritual path; a raw, orange spessartite garnet to represent creativity and sexual attraction and finally a raw, green tremolite to access higher knowledge. He chose these stones to symbolize the things he loves about me. Truly it is one of the most beautiful pieces of jewelry I have ever laid eyes on it. Wearing it brings me comfort and reminds me that I am loved. I will cherish this piece forever.
My family has a particularly imaginative oral history, loosely based on facts and revolving around a few favorite characters one of which is my great-grandmother. I’m told that her family lived in Italy and before she was born they won the lottery and decided to move to Argentina. When my great-grandmother was born in Buenos Aires, her mother decided to name her Carmen, instead of the Italian equivalent, Carmela. Carmen grew up to be flamboyant and boisterous, a woman who was loved and slightly feared. Her specialty in the kitchen was squid ink pasta and her style was perhaps slightly gaudy. I’m also told that she loved cruises and had a special suite of hats and shawls for her social escapes across the ocean.
Recently my grandmother gave me a picture of Carmen standing next to her husband in front of a grocery store. Her husband, my great-grandfather, was a farmer. They owned the grocery store and stocked it with their own produce. In the photograph, Carmen looks considerably larger than her husband, a proud, tall woman with a stern looking face.
When I was born, my parents decided to name me Carmen after this family legend, forever gifting me with a connection to our beloved and formidable ancestor.
Luba was born in pre-Putin Russia 13 years ago—hence the Russian name. A French bulldog, she was probably smuggled into the states illegally by a Russian immigrant living in St. Louis, Missouri. My parents saw her and her sister in an ad in the St. Louis Post Dispatch and bought her for an unheard-of low price; that’s why we think she was smuggled in.
Luba was on a plane to Salt Lake the next day and has been with us in Logan ever since. She is now a grand old senior and the sweetest reminder of my parents, the consummate shoppers, who passed away in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
My mother was the best gift giver. With little to no money she always made the holidays special by giving from her “treasures.” She acquired quite the collection of interesting jewelry through the years.
As a child, one of my favorite pieces was a blue glass octagon-shaped box with a white unicorn inlayed on the top. Inside, the box held a small round, blue stone pendant with a silver unicorn cut into the stone—perfectly enchanting for a magic-loving young girl.
One year, after I was out of college and all “grown up,” my mother gifted me the unicorn pendant for winter Solstice and I finally got to wear it. It’s a cherished piece that I wear often, especially when I need to feel my mom’s love. This gift is priceless to me.
Lots of kids have invisible friends, but when one of my daughters was small she had a whole tribe of invisible pandas. One day she and her older sister asked me if I ever had an invisible friend, and I told them I did. Her name was Flowery the Bear and she used to fly upside down in an airplane. My family moved to Utah just before I went to kindergarten, and Flowery didn’t come with us.
When my kids handed me their present they were all anticipation to see me open it. Inside was a teddy bear made of flowery plush. It was Flowery the Bear! I keep her on my pillow and sleep with her every night, and sometimes when little kids come over I let them play with her.
Our best Christmas present was celebrating Christmas for the first time when we were about six years old. Being the only Jews in the first grade was really confusing.
“How will Santa know that we decided to celebrate Christmas this year?” we asked our mom when we put our first letters to Santa in the mailbox.
“He’ll know, I told him,” said my mom. We remember thinking in disbelief, “How is our Jewish mother so well connected with Santa that she can have conversations with him?”
Christmas day came and we found footprints from the elves all over our living room (strangely these elves left white footprints made with flour!?), the half-eaten cookies and milk, a buttload of gifts under the tree, and a little hand-written note from Santa left on the table. We can’t even remember what presents we opened that day save one of those globes you build out of puzzle pieces. We mostly just remember the pure excitement and surprise with Santa’s visit. Boy, was that the last time we ever doubted the reach of our mom’s network.
—Sophie and Rachel Silverstone
The best Christmas gift I’ve ever received I got last year from my parents: a soft and fluffy, light blue and snow-flaked snuggly robe. Last year, my husband and I had gotten into a very serious car accident only two days before Christmas, in a car we had newly purchased only two days before. Sentimentality makes me think perhaps no one getting hurt was the real gift but the robe still reminds me of how grateful I am for my family who drove in from Vegas to see us after the accident and to bring my family, and Christmas, home.
My tiller. It changed everything. No longer was I a small, gimpy woman facing a quarter-acre of crappy grass and weeds. I was a small, powerful, mechanized force that could literally change the face of the landscape.
And I did.
For all the years that I could use it, my backyard was a wondrous place: beautiful, functional, slightly wild, and critter friendly. Now that I’ve had my shoulder rebuilt (which the tiller helped to shred), I hope to use that most awesome of gifts once again, and reclaim my suburban nirvana.
I am lucky enough to have two “best-loved” gifts. The carefully wrapped baby toy under our tree in 1971 announced to my two sisters and I the coming of our brother Michael. Two Christmases later, baby sister Katie made her appearance.
This year we will all be together again in that family home on Christmas Eve for the first time in decades. Who knows what we’ll find under that tree!
—Polly Plummer Mottonen
The best gift I ever got was too many new songs. For my 55th birthday. I had asked my friends for a copy of their favorite song. That was a while ago, so most of them came on CDs. I received close to 500 songs. Some became my favorites and still live in my iTunes folder, with the donor’s names in the Comments field.
The second best gift I ever got was an iTunes gift certificate for 100 African songs that I gave myself for Christmas one year. The best part was “unwrapping” the gift over the next three weeks. Starting from “World,” I listened my way through “African” with diversions into “French Pop.” Going at it alphabetically I got mired down in the M’s, (there are a lot of African musicians whose last names begin with M) and ended up working backwards from Z.
Igrew up the youngest of three children. My brother, 14 years older than I, abandoned me for the seminary when I was a toddler, then again a few years later for the Marines. My sister, 11 years older than I, soon ditched me for a husband. I grew up, essentially, an only child—a shock, after all the pleasant interaction of early years. (Can you tell I have issues here?) But family get-tegethers meant siblings plus spouses and lots of nieces and nephews. I liked that.
On Thanksgiving of the year I turned 40, my dad got diagnosed with esophogeal cancer. He’d previously had a stroke. As the child with fewest encumbrances, I flew home to Wisconsin to help Mom with his care. My sister, who lived nearby, had a family to tend but she, too, came home almost daily.
Daddy was a joy to care for, even though he was not much good at moving or talking. He was rarely in pain, grateful to be read to, and kept busy knitting. I drew pictures. I practiced my violin—previously his violin—and played the piano. He lived on little bottles of ginseng flown in from a Salt Lake Asian market. It was a strangely happy time, though intense. In addition, I had no contact with my Utah life (pre-laptop/internet). Phone calls were expensive. The flat light of a grey Wisconsin December courts Seasonal Affective Disorder in the most stable of people. After a month, I was going a tiny bit stir-crazy. Also, the processed dining fare of elderly smalltown Midwesterners was beginning to wear on me.
Then my brother, a hermit type who lived in the middle of a national forest, wrote books and appreciated good food, brandy and cigars and lived about two hours away, arrived. I may have actually cried when he walked through the door, carrying a box of beautiful groceries —greens other than head lettuce; avocados; dark chocolate; good olive oil, Tobasco sauce, real coffee; all manor of fresh fruit and more.
For several nights we sat down at the table together—Mom and Dad and we three kids, ages 39, 51 and 53—a nuclear family for the first time since I was in a high chair. I remembered where each of us used to sit. Except for cosmetic changes, everything, including the lighting, was exactly the same. We were together again. I felt smug with the rightness of my world.
My sister got me out to the mall one evening. We bought matching necklaces—small plastic Christmas tree lightbulbs on a thin green thread. In a little coffee shop I drank espresso and she ate chocolate-covered espresso beans. We stayed up all night.
Other than that, no one cared to venture far from home. A St. Vincent dePaul thrift store, six houses down the street from ours, is where we did our Christmas shopping that year. And we all got knitted dish cloths from Dad.
In-laws and grandchildren arrived for Christmas eve. All my dad’s musical instruments were hauled out. We played for hours. Then my husband and my brother’s wife fetched him from his deathbed, enthroned him in the living room recliner and we played everything again. It was solemn, sad and joyous all at once.
My mom, sister and I were with him when he passed peacefully, early on a Sunday morning three weeks later. He’d cheated and won at checkers the night before. His last words were, “It’s alright, it’s okay.”
My mother, who had been so grief-stricken prior, stared in disbelief. “I feel like the gift disappeared and I’m left holding the wrapping,” she said.
Perhaps because I do not have a lot of experiences like this in my life—it comes with being the way-youngest child—I cherish the memory of this Christmas so deeply. It’s hard to believe how much older my siblings have gotten in the last 25 years. Still, I hope we can hang out together again someday soon and maybe even talk about the olden days when we were a little family. Either way, I have the gift of this memory.
Greta Belanger deJong is the editor and publisher of CATALYST.