’Tis better to give
A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.
I knew I was not supposed to be quite so excited. I was too old for that. At age eleven, the oldest and my mom’s “grown up” girl, I had to keep my cool. I was in middle school after all. But every chance I got, when I was alone, I checked each present under the tree. I read every tag and felt every package, guessing at the contents within. I had examined each gift so often that I could tell which present went to which person without even looking at the tags.
It had been a tough year for my family. Whenever my mom looked over at the tree and scattered presents, she would sigh and warn us, “There won’t be as much for Christmas this year. Try not to be disappointed.” Christmas had traditionally been a time for my parents to spoil us. In years past, the presents would pile up and spill out from under the tree, taking over the living room. I had heard the phrase “giving is better than receiving,” but thought that whoever had said that must have been out of their mind. Getting presents was the whole point! It was the reason I couldn’t get to sleep on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning, we eagerly waited in the hallway until Dad told us everything was ready. We rushed into the living room and let the wrapping paper fly. We made weak attempts to wait and watch while other family members opened their presents, but as the time passed we lost our self-control.
“Here’s another one for you,” said Mom as she handed me a package. I looked at it, confused. Having spent so much time examining the presents before Christmas, I recognized this one. But it had not been mine. It was my mom’s. A new label had been put on it, with my name written in my mother’s handwriting.
“Mom, I can’t…”
I was stopped by my mother’s eager, joyful look—a look I could not really understand. “Let’s see what it is, honey. Hurry and open it.”
It was a blow dryer. Though this may seem but a simple gift, to me it was so much more. Being an eleven-year-old girl, I was stunned. In my world, where receiving outweighed giving by light years, my mom’s act of selflessness was incomprehensible. It was a huge act. Tears filled my eyes and I thought in disbelief about how much my mom must love me to give up her Christmas so I could have a few more presents.
I have always remembered that Christmas fondly. It had such an impact on me. As an adult with children in my life whom I adore, I can now understand my mom’s actions. I see how she was not “giving up her Christmas” as I had thought, but was finding an even greater joy in her Christmas because giving truly is better than receiving. My mom’s simple act meant the world to me. These Christmas miracles will restore your hope for the holidays.
—Jennifer Yardley Barney
The Christmas spirit strikes again
Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!
—Hamilton Wright Mabie
I always dreamed of pulling off the surprise prank of a lifetime. You know, the kind you see on TV, or laugh about late at night with friends? Well, thanks to a little determination, some luck, and a generous helping of Christmas Spirit, my dream became a reality.
My family is Canadian, although my sister moved down to Australia a few years ago to study speech pathology. She was graduating just before Christmas, but due to my own scholarly schedule back home, I would not be unable to make it down in time for her graduation. She was understandably disappointed, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to be there for her on this most special of occasions.
While I was talking to my supervisor the week before my sister’s graduation, the conversation drifted toward Christmas plans. When I mentioned that I would be missing my sister’s graduation by less than forty-eight hours, she commented, “Well, if you want to go, I have no problem with it, so go ahead!” I couldn’t believe my luck! I nearly jumped for joy. “Just make sure you get permission from admin,” she added. My heart sank. The administration at my school was notorious for denying any sort of time-off requests, and last-minute pleas would undoubtedly draw nothing but ire. I almost didn’t bother asking, because I knew it would be a waste of time and I didn’t feel like a thorough chastisement. Plus, I knew the answer already: no. But something in me decided to try, just in case. Maybe it was the hope that the Christmas Spirit would somehow permeate the administrative office at this time of year.
When I returned home to find the Associate Dean’s reply in my inbox, I steeled myself for disappointment. I gritted my teeth, opened the e-mail, and started to read. And re-read. And re-read, just to make sure I’d understood. Approval? I could actually go? I rubbed my eyes—there must be a mistake. But no. I was flabbergasted. There was no logical explanation. I couldn’t believe my luck! The only explanation I could possibly come up with was that the Christmas Spirit had been lurking in the heart of my Associate Dean when she’d read my request.
Immediately, I called the airline. Miraculously, even during the busy Christmas season, I was able to change my ticket to arrive the day before my sister’s graduation.
With news this fantastic, I was bursting to tell my sister. But, fingers on the dial, I paused. Wouldn’t it be so much more fantastic if I could surprise her? I pictured myself just showing up, knocking at her door. What a state of shock she would be in! I laughed gleefully to myself as I pictured her face when she opened the door and saw me. She loves pranks and practical jokes of all sorts. Pulling off a prank like this would certainly be the ultimate gift, and if I were successful, she’d probably be more excited about my unconventional arrival than even my attendance at her graduation.
Slowly the idea evolved in my mind. For a surprise of this grand a scale, I needed a much more dramatic arrival than just a ring of the doorbell. For me, Christmas surprises are epitomized by presents. Or at least boxes. What if I could arrive in a box? I started to plot. Then, brilliance struck. Getting delivered in a box to my sister’s house by couriers! I knew if I pulled this off, my presence at her graduation and my grand arrival would be the best Christmas present I could ever give my sister. No one appreciates a prank like a prankster!
Although I was leaving in less than seventy-two hours, I frantically jumped on my computer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and started Googling courier companies. One of the first I came across, and the only one willing to go along with my Christmas surprise, was CouriersPlease. At first the branch manager said no, pointing out that Christmas was their busiest season and he couldn’t spare a courier for this rather unorthodox request. But he suddenly and inexplicably warmed up to the idea and actually volunteered to dress up and deliver me himself. The Christmas Spirit strikes again!
Upon arrival in Australia, the manager met me in full uniform, but that wasn’t all. He’d brought one of his couriers, plus a CouriersPlease van along for the ride as well! They even had a reinforced box prepared for me that they’d already tested at the office. I’d thought it would be easiest to walk up to the doorway, and then jump in the box while they rang the doorbell. But no, they insisted; my sister might see me through the window and they certainly didn’t want to jeopardize my Christmas surprise. Instead, they parked a few hundred meters up the street, where they loaded me in the box and carried me all the way up to my sister’s, where they rang the doorbell and announced they had a delivery for her.
I couldn’t see the look on my sister’s face as she opened the door to couriers with a surprise delivery, but I could tell from her voice that she was more than a little perplexed. This soon morphed into utter disbelief and shock when the box was opened and she saw her older sister sitting inside smiling up at her. She was at a complete loss for words, and I will never forget the look on her face as she opened those flaps on the box.
It was such a gift to be able to attend my sister’s graduation, and to show her my love by giving her the most unique, unconventional Christmas present in the history of our family. It was a memory both she and I will cherish forever. It also served as a lesson for me: never, ever underestimate the power of the Christmas Spirit. It can move hearts, minds, and yes, even people in boxes. Read up on these heartwarming true tales of vintage Christmas kindness.
Sharing a legacy of love
Compromise, if not the spice of life, is its solidity. It is what makes nations great and marriages happy.
When my mother died at the age of eighty-four, my four sisters and I were heartbroken. How could we ever get over the loss of this warm and loving woman, a talented artist who enjoyed life in spite of its challenges and always doted on her husband, daughters and grandchildren?
For weeks after, my sisters and I would meet for dinner, laughing and crying over old memories. When it came time to sell the home my mother loved, we spent many days in disbelief, clearing out her belongings. I remembered reading an Ann Landers column years earlier that discussed how many siblings fight bitterly over the possessions left by their deceased parents. I thought, “How lucky we are that will never happen to us.” Somehow, we easily and peacefully divided Mom’s belongings—furniture, jewelry, and household items—among ourselves and a few charities. Although I expected there might be a tug of war over her paintings, that never happened. Pretty good considering there were five daughters and four grandchildren. No conflicts, squabbles or disputes at all. Until we discovered the old nativity set in a box in Mom’s closet.
I remembered Mom telling the story of how she acquired the manger. An old friend who did carpentry work gave it to my mom and dad as a Christmas gift when they were first married. My sister, Eileen, however, remembers it differently. Mom told her she found the crèche in a garbage can belonging to Mrs. Bingham, the elderly lady who lived across the street from us.
Unlike some of the ornate versions found in today’s stores, this manger was crafted from dark wood and completely unadorned—just a roof, a floor and a railing surrounding it. Though beautifully crafted, there was one flaw: one side of the double gate in front was lopsided. Mom filled it with three figurines to start—Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. For many years after, she continued to add others—the Wise Men, shepherds, angels, and animals. As kids, we loved the annual rites of the Christmas season, especially taking the nativity set and decorations down from the attic and carefully putting them in place. When the sisters all married and grandchildren came along, they added new characters of their own to the stable, including a set of the three little pigs.
After Mom’s death, when the nativity set emerged, no one was prepared for the battle that would follow. My sister Joanne was the first to claim the manger, insisting it was the only one of Mom’s possessions that she really wanted. Her wish was granted. But when my niece Mandy found out, she called from her apartment in California to voice her objection. She was clearly emotional as she repeated a decades-old promise made to her by my mother: “Nanny promised me that I could have the nativity set when she was gone,” she cried. “The nativity set belongs to me.” Joanne felt strongly that as Mom’s daughter, she had first dibs. Neither she nor Mandy would budge.
When the disagreement showed signs of becoming a full-blown family feud, we realized something had to be done. Enter the family arbitrator, my sister Eileen, who somehow saw through the fog. But as Mandy’s mother and Joanne’s sister, could Eileen handle this dilemma fairly? Temporarily, she set aside the emotion of the dispute, and thought logically. The nativity set was just a wooden stable, not an irreplaceable masterpiece of art. The beauty was in the eye of the beholders, the perception of two people who coveted a simple item owned by someone they loved. Couldn’t a copy be created? Of course! She would order the wood from the lumberyard and get someone to build a second manger.
The following day, Eileen went to Centre Millwork and stood in line behind several contractors ordering lumber from a young man with a crewcut. He was wearing a tag with his name, Brett, written in green magic marker. When Eileen’s turn came, she had to shout over the sound of buzzing saws. She pointed to the nativity set in her arms and told him the story, explaining that it was causing a major rift between her sister Joanne and her daughter Mandy. Brett took the stable from her, held it up with one hand and laughed, “They’re fighting over this?”
“Yes,” Eileen explained. “I know it seems crazy, but it was my mother’s and they both loved her very much. Is there any way you could measure and cut some wood so we could have a duplicate built?
Brett said, “Leave it here. I’ll see what I can do.” Eileen left, hoping he could come up with a minor miracle. That’s what it would take to satisfy the two women in her life that were squabbling.
A few days later, she received a phone message saying that her order was ready. When Eileen arrived at the hardware store to pick up the wood, she couldn’t believe what she saw — two identical stables sitting side by side. Brett had not only cut and measured the wood, he had built a second manger. “I know you wanted them to look the same, so I added a couple of dings and flaws that were in the original. Hope that’s okay.”
Sure enough, the new stable had the same lopsided front gate. “Okay?” Eileen said in tears. “You have no idea what this will mean to my sister and my daughter. To the entire family. I don’t care what this costs. Your work has saved the day.”
“That will be $3.75 for the materials,” Brett said. When Eileen insisted on paying him more, he said, “I didn’t do it on company time. I built it at home so I won’t charge you for the labor.” He pointed to the new manger. “I hope this helps your family have a merrier Christmas.”
Eileen left Brett with a large tip and a big hug of thanks. When she got home and called Joanne and Mandy about her creative solution, they were very happy and extremely relieved that the problem was resolved. One phone call later, Joanne and Mandy had agreed that Joanne would take possession of the new stable as well as some of the old figurines—including Mary, Joseph and the infant. Mandy would get to keep the original—just as Nanny promised.
—Kathy Melia Levine
We do not remember days; we remember moments.
—Cesare Pavese, The Burning Brand
Following Christmas dinner, my family was relaxing around the kitchen table. We had all enjoyed traditional turkey, sweet potatoes lightly glazed with brown sugar, and a final wedge of pumpkin pie topped with a dollop of ice cream. The good cooking smells still lingered; the oven remained warm. My sister, our chef, was basking in the compliments—“Fabulous meal,” “I really couldn’t eat another bite,” “Everything was wonderful.” Dad had risen from his chair and was contentedly standing nearby.
My nephew, never one to sit still for too long, began dribbling his new basketball around the table and throughout the kitchen. Upon nearing Dad, he stopped—almost uncertainly. With shaking, wrinkled hands, Dad had reached out for the ball. He did not speak, and the boy, confused, looked up and over at us. It took some convincing, but the ball was gingerly passed over.
I watched my father closely to see what he would do. A playful smile appeared on his face. The twinkle in his eyes shone brighter than any Christmas lights. Holding the ball and reaching forward, Dad bounced it on the floor then caught it.
This action was repeated. Nodding approvingly, he then turned towards our assembled group. Gently tossing the ball away, Dad began a game of catch.
The ball continued to be passed through eager pairs of outstretched hands. Cries of “Over here!” rang through the warm kitchen. Dad’s active participation in this game was remarkable to me, since he had advanced Alzheimer’s disease. This dementia had robbed him of many memories and the recognition of people, places and points in time. Despite this, Dad clearly recognized the ball and what you could do with it.
In my younger years, playing with Dad was rare. To his credit, Dad worked hard and provided for us. He was very private and never showed nor shared much emotion; his game of choice was chess, which he did eventually teach me how to play. As an adult, I had become a caregiver and watched helplessly as Dad declined. Connecting moments between father and son had been few and far between before he took the basketball.
I’m not sure how long we played catch. Watching the clock was not important. Dad gleefully led us until he began to tire. What I do know is that our game ended all too soon, and it was time to face the reality of dirty dishes piled high on countertops. The moment, though, will certainly last forever. On this Christmas, Dad gave me a special memory—one that I will always treasure. These stories about meeting Santa will fill you with Christmas spirit.
A Christmas present, delayed
Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there.
I was ten the summer my dad helped me buy my first ten-speed bicycle from Father Allen. I put up $60 of my grass cutting and snow shoveling money, and my dad put up the other half. I would pay him back in installments over the next six months. Although it was the kind of bike you’d expect a priest to have (dull silver, slightly worn, no baseball cards in the spokes), it was my ticket to the adult world.
I spent that summer and autumn riding as if to put Greg LeMond to shame. My sister Liz, a prisoner of her five-speed and banana seat, never had a chance to keep up. We’d always been stuck with hand-me-downs from our older brothers and sisters, a few of whom had notoriously bad taste in bikes. Now, however, I was able to ride to every corner of town, sometimes even as far as the beach. In those heady days before one acquires a driver’s license, a good bike is a magic carpet.
Just before the Christmas deadline to pay my dad back, we were hit with several snowstorms. This allowed me to shovel enough driveways to pay off my debt. I was now officially a bike owner; it was a feeling unlike any other.
It’s important to note that while my mom and dad were fantastic parents, they couldn’t be trusted with the awesome responsibility of buying appropriate Christmas presents. They were too quick to pass off gloves, sneakers, and shirts as “presents.” And while we might say a prayer over the Baby Jesus in the manger on our way to church, He seemed too busy at this time of year to leave presents under the tree. We outsourced our requests for the really good presents to Santa.
For her family of seven kids, my mom developed a system in which she decorated the outside of seven large boxes with different types of wallpaper. We each had our own box that contained six or so presents, and we’d close our eyes and reach in to grab one when it was our turn. This cut down on hours of wrapping and satisfied my dad’s Naval sense of order.
The downside was we opened one present at a time so everyone could “appreciate” each other’s gifts. Neither Liz nor I “appreciated” this system because we went last. After the obligatory “oohs” and “aahs,” each of us held up our present for family review, a process that averaged about five minutes or so. This meant Liz and I had to wait about forty-five minutes between each present, so patience was in short supply—when one of us pulled out a belt or package of underwear, we seethed the entire time.
My dad, a master showman, liked to keep a few of Santa’s better presents for the end. On that fateful Christmas morning, he gave me a used portable record player. I was ecstatic—I was finally untethered from the “family stereo” that all of us fought over.
Alas, my elation was short-lived after my dad called my sister to the kitchen. “We have one more gift for you,” he said as he opened the door that led to the garage. There, on the steps, stood a brand new ten-speed Schwinn. I didn’t hear her screams of joy—all I could hear was the sputtering engine of the lawnmower, the endless scraping of the metal snow shovel on concrete. I’d endured far too many hours of indentured servitude for my used bike; that Santa could give Liz this sparkling machine less than a week later was a sign that he was losing his touch. Could Mrs. Claus be putting something in his food?
I slumped onto the floor. My ten-speed chariot had turned into a pumpkin in the time it took my sister to hop on the gleaming leather seat.
“Let’s go for a ride, Rob!” she sang, my dad holding the bike upright as she put her feet on the pedals.
“Too snowy to ride,” I muttered, pushing the record player farther away from me. The symbolism seemed lost on my dad.
I seethed for the rest of the day, then the rest of the week. My dad was not someone to whom we complained about presents (not if we ever wanted to see another, anyway). Santa always seemed to lose interest after Christmas, rarely accepting returns or trade-ins. That left the Baby Jesus, but He wasn’t answering my prayers—I could tell because Liz’s bike had yet to crumble into a pile of rust flakes.
After a few weeks of watching me pout, my dad finally pulled me aside. “Everything okay?”
“It’s not fair,” I whined. “I worked so hard for my bike, and it’s not even new. Then Liz gets a brand new bike as soon as I make the final payment. She didn’t have to do anything for it.”
My dad smiled. “She didn’t have to do anything for it because it’s not really for her,” he said, and then left the room.
What did that mean? I didn’t want her bike—it had the girly bar that sloped down to the ground and a flowery white basket on the handlebars. I could turn it in for a new set of action figures, I figured, but she’d been on it every day since Christmas—no way they’d let me take it back now. I eventually got over it, chalking it up to elf error (the naughty and nice list can be cumbersome).
By spring Liz and I were riding all over town together now that she could keep up. Sure, I’d lose her on the steep slopes, but I always let her catch up when we went downhill. Initially, the youngest children in a large family form a bond out of necessity—older siblings can be taxing, and there are only so many locked doors one can hide behind. Sometimes, you need someone else in the foxhole with you.
As we grew, Liz and I became true friends. We biked down to swim at the local pool, then put in seven miles to take the free town tennis lessons together. We planned secret parties when my parents went on trips and played a game of “Who can leave less gas in the tank” when we finally got our drivers’ licenses. I relied on her to put names to faces when we were at parties, and she treated my best friends as her personal dating service. We ended up at the same college, and even graduated the same year.
Still, I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what my dad meant until years later. That brand new bike was not a gift for Liz—it was a gift for me. He’d given me the gift of my sister’s company, the ability to stay together rather than drift apart in the face of my ability to travel. He gave me my best friend.
It’s a gift I’ve treasured every day since. Read about another person’s unforgettable Christmas present.
—Robert F. Walsh
Pepper’s last gift
Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.
—Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Whatever life threw at us each year, come Christmas our family had one constant tradition: our dog Pepper opened our presents for us. When our beloved Black Lab mix had been a gangly adolescent puppy, we had only given her unbreakable gifts to unwrap—things like pajamas and steering wheel covers. She proved to be so careful that we soon gave her any gift that wasn’t edible. Every time, Pepper found the seam in the wrapping paper with her snout and held the present down gingerly with her forepaws. Her front teeth pried up the lip of paper with the utmost care. Then she removed every inch of wrapping paper before stepping back to lie in the midst of our gathering. She never bit or scratched the gifts themselves.
Friends and relatives who joined our family celebrations never believed Pepper could be so delicate until they witnessed her talents. Watching our sweet dog unwrap gifts always warmed the holiday, which was often a little bittersweet because college, studying abroad, or work commitments often kept my two sisters and me away.
One year, everyone made it home for a Christmas together. I was back from Ireland, Kaci flew in from Arizona, and Kara visited from college. Mom’s jubilance kept her busy baking cookies for us all. Our Christmas season should have been perfect.
It couldn’t feel perfect, though, because Pepper’s health was deteriorating. Her life had already been longer than we expected—she was fourteen—and yet her mind was still sharp. Her enthusiasm for life made us feel better. But her body could not keep up with her spirit. She’d already shown the usual signs of deafness and stiffness. That year, her hips and back legs started giving out on her. We knew we would soon have to make a difficult decision.
It was likely Pepper’s last Christmas, so we decided to make sure she enjoyed it. On Christmas Eve, we gathered around the tree to open an early present. We each took a turn and then called Pepper to open one more. But her tangled legs could not navigate the boxes and shredded wrapping paper on the floor. She stumbled over the obstacles, and soon she disappeared into the next room. She crumpled back to the floor, as out of the way as she could get.
We were heartbroken. Could Pepper even participate in her last Christmas?
Pepper stayed on the periphery of all our holiday activities. Throughout the day, we gave gifts but did not feel very giving. We shared stories over cinnamon rolls that tasted bland. We played games by the tree whose twinkles had dimmed.
That evening, Kaci said what we’d all been thinking: “I wish Pepper could have helped open presents this year.”
We all put down our mugs of spiced tea. “Maybe she still could,” Kara said.
“But there’s none left,” Mom reminded her.
Kara jumped up and left the room. We heard her opening drawers and cabinets in the kitchen. She returned with a box of dog biscuits, scissors, and a roll of tape.
“Hand me that green paper,” Kara told me, pointing at a large sheet at my feet. She cut a small section from the paper and wrapped a single dog treat in it. She held it up as if she had just struck gold. “Now there’s a present for her!”
I knelt on the floor next to Kara and wrapped another dog treat. Kaci and Mom joined in, too. Soon, we had four elegantly wrapped dog biscuits in a row on the floor. We cleared the floor of discarded wrapping paper. We tucked our legs under us as we perched out of the way on the furniture.
“Go get Pepper,” we urged Mom. We all bounced like eager children.
Mom went into the next room. “You want to open a present, girl?” she coaxed. In a moment, Pepper stuck her head into the room. Her ears were fully perked with anticipation and curiosity.
She skidded on stilted legs to the row of presents. She sniffed all four in order, and looked back and forth between them. She’d never had such a wide choice of gifts before.
Soon, Pepper selected her first Christmas gift. She nimbly turned the present with her forepaw, just like she was a spry young dog once more. She tugged every last scrap of paper off the dog treat before she chewed it with her customary grace.
Our family swelled with glee.
Pepper licked the last crumb from the floor. She eyed the remaining three presents, then turned to Mom as if asking, “May I please open another?”
“Go ahead, girl!” Mom encouraged.
For the next few minutes, Pepper opened each of her Christmas presents. While she did, she reminded us of the sheer joy of being together. Our family felt whole—not because we were in the same room, city, or country, but because our love bonded us together.
In the new year, Pepper let us know it was time to call the veterinarian. Her passing, while tearful, was peaceful. In its own way, her passing was also a celebration of life, because she gave my family so much love and laughter.
Long after I forgot each of my presents, I still cherish Pepper’s final Christmas gift. She taught me that no matter where we each spend the holidays, and no matter what the passing year brings, the smallest act of heartfelt giving can unite our family through our love. For me, that knowledge is the longest-lasting gift of all. Feel like a kid again when you read these adorable letters to Santa that will warm your heart.
All stories reprinted by permission Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC © 2013