It’s Not Complicated

At the moment, a lot of us are waist deep in tangled tree lights, pine garlands, wrapping paper, bags and tags. Year after year, we promise to dial it back and embrace the season. To ground ourselves in the spirituality, the scent of spiced cider and the sounds of music.

My writer/friend, Constance, wrote this essay, Simple Gifts, as a reminder that the most gracious gifts are given, throughout the year, when least expected.

Simple Gifts
by Constance Costas

I come from a family of lousy gift givers. We’re a congenial bunch; no rifts divide us. But we’re stumped at the prospect of putting a bow on a box and saying, “Here. I picked this out just for you.” Our gifts often miss their mark. One Christmas when I was a teenager, a Crock Pot sent my mother sobbing from the living room. “I thought she wanted it,” my father wondered aloud, searching our wide eyes for answers.  She probably did. But now that I am married with two young children of my own, I understand why countertop appliances and gift wrap do not mix.

We’re wildly inconsistent, too. “Birthday present?” I’ll snipe at my brother, “I gave you one last year!” And we’re far too practical, grimly exchanging surge protectors or battery chargers. When you give the gift of smoke-detection, we reason, you give the gift of love.

I have learned not to take these things personally. My father, for instance, would give me the shirt off his back, but he doesn’t do gifts—or birthday cards for that matter. He handles his Christmas shopping in two ways; a) he doesn’t or, b) he dials my phone number and says, “I don’t have anything for your mother.”  I pick out a rosy-pink cashmere sweater (something she would never buy for herself), and he swoops into the store, returning home with an elegant wrapped box under his arm.

There will be no more Crock Pots.

Now that we’re grown, my brother and I skip the guessing games and get down to brass tacks. “What should I get you for Christmas?” he asks me.

“Good cheap wine,” I answer. My brother is a wine person. He swirls it and sniffs it and he knows all the good years. “Pick out some good ten-dollar bottles. Show me what to buy.”

When the wine bottles appear under the tree, they hold little mystery, but because he has selected them just for me, I am filled with anticipation. “This one goes with spicy food,” he begins. “Keep this for sipping at home; and when you’re invited to dinner, take this one.” Each bottle is a revelation, better than the next.  He has thrown himself wholeheartedly into this gift. And it shows.

My mother wraps her gifts in simple white paper tied with red ribbon but they’re always slightly ‘off,’ as if she’s gone shopping in a parallel universe. Deeply suspicious of department stores and the lip-glossed saleswomen who inhabit them, my mother would rather pierce her eyebrow than walk into, say, Bloomingdales to buy a Christmas present.

Instead she patronizes church bazaars, civil war museums, marine supply stores and, recently, a Viking souvenir shop in Norway. If you’re the sort of person whose Christmas wish list includes chow-chow from the St. Paul’s church choir or a miniature replica of a Viking ship, then you are in luck.

My mother’s shopping habits used to disappoint me. My school friends got ten-speed bikes and record players for Christmas, while I got lumpy hand-knit scarves for Christmas. But as I get older, I’m finding that the mall gives me a headache, too.

And the “sales extravaganza” that has replaced Christmas makes me wistful for the simpler days of kindergarten when my all-purpose gift was a clove-studded orange. I’ve come to admire her hard line approach: simply put, the Estee Lauder Holiday Candle holds no place in hers.

In fact, my mother’s best gifts have nothing to do with special occasions at all. Free from the gun-in-your-back pressure of Christmas shopping, she gives naturally and with grace. “It’s easier,” she concedes, “when the television isn’t threatening me with a deadline.” On a recent Tuesday, for instance, she quietly presented me with four of her dining-room chairs. “I’m not using all of them.” These gifts arrive all year long, not just when the tinsel is flying. She’ll breeze into my house, bucket in hand, to assemble an impromptu flower arrangement. And when she needs a new vacuum cleaner, she strikes a two-for-one deal with the salesman. “I can’t use them both,” she tells me over the phone, “why don’t you take one?”

Years ago, when I owned nothing but an air mattress and a milk-crate coffee table, she loaded a truck with an apartment’s worth of furniture and sent it to my new place in New York. When the movers marched in, they carried lamps, rugs, a sofa, antique dresser, and chair. They wiggled a kitchen table through the narrow door; then they went back for curtains with matching throw pillows, blankets, sheets, and towels. When the truck was finally empty, my new apartment had been transformed into my new home.

“It was nothing,” she protested, when I called to thank her.

But, truly, it was everything.