Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Presents Matter

Christmastime is magic.

I think that most of us have some fond memories of Christmas.  And more so than any other time of year, it is a time of magic.  As Bill Murray said in Scrooged, it's a time when we are a little nicer, when we smile a little easier.  And I think most of this falls back to childhood.

And let's be honest, most of that anticipation and excitement came from knowing there would be brightly-colored presents under the tree.  We couldn't wait to dive in and tear away at the paper like we were the Tasmanian Devil and gorge ourselves on our junk-food-filled stalkings.   You've seen the videos on youtube, I'm sure, of the little kids freaking out over getting a Nintendo or a Playstation.  They are joyous to the point of insanity.

But then we get older.  And we're told that Christmas is not about getting toys and games.  Christmas is about spending time with those that we love.  Christmas is about holiday traditions.  And Christmas is about the spiritual reality of the Nativity.

All of that is true.  But there is a part of us that loses that excitement we had as kids.  Many would say that this is all a part of growing up.  We set aside childish things and focus on the more adult ways to approach the holiday.  I was the same way.

But I always felt like I had lost something.  Maybe it was the selfish monster trying to rear his ugly head.  I don't doubt that in our fallen human nature, Christmas affords us the opportunity to indulge, as Ralphie said, our "unbridled avarice."

Yet I don't think that it's as simple as that.  I remember getting older and getting more and more presents like sweaters and wallets and eye glass repair kits.  These were all things that I needed and I was grateful for them, but it didn't have that spark that earlier Christmases had.

But then I started dating a lovely young woman, the kindest and most beautiful woman I had ever met.  We spent our first Christmas eve together at her parent's home.  We were opening presents and there the usual grown-up gifts.  But then I opened a small box from her and inside was the most amazing thing:

The throne room action figure set from the end of my favorite movie, Return of the Jedi.

I was so excited I opened up the box and took out Luke, Vader and the Emperor (in ebony-black throne).  I then began re-enacting with them the entire last act of the movie, complete with sound effects and music.  It was about 10 minutes into this that I stopped and realized that the room had gone quiet.  I looked up and her entire family had been staring at me the whole time.

But then I looked at my girlfriend and she had sweetest smile on her face.  She was happy.

And that's when I understood why presents matter.

Don't misunderstand, it is not about the material things in and of itself.  Stuff for the sake of stuff turns us into Dudley Dursleys.  That's not the point.

Imagine the opposite of the typical happy Christmas morning.  My sister once asked this question, and it always stuck with me.  "Imagine you come down the stairs and go to the tree and there is nothing there.  There's no present, no stocking... nothing for you to open.  Nothing for you to play with."

That is the situation that many children find themselves in.  I work a program at my school where we bring in underprivileged children and we give them a Christmas breakfast, cookies, hats, gloves, stockings, and a present from Santa.  One of the teachers who worked with the children said to me that for some of them this will be the best Christmas they will have.  When they see Santa and they open their presents, they light up brighter than any Christmas lights.  Why?

It isn't how much money was spent on them or the acquisition of more stuff.

It's that someone cared enough about them to go out of their to get a gift just for them.

Presents are a way to let the other person know that they are special.  When we're young, it might be about getting the new and coolest thing.  But that isn't the magic.  The magic is that someone saw into our heart's desire and made the effort to get something just for us.  It is that magical moment when someone gets into your mind and your heart and "gets" you.  And now you have something tangible to remind you of that.

My girlfriend's gift meant so much not because it was expensive or difficult to get.  It was special because I knew from this silly gift that she understood me.  That our minds had entered the same space and this meant our lives were shared just a little bit more.  And that made her happy.

Now that I am married to her, I still do everything I can each Christmas to let her know that I "get" her.  It isn't about the money spent.  It can't be since I'm a poor Catholic school teacher.  One year I got her something she had owned as a child, some beloved toy.  When she opened it, I saw a little bit of that happy little girl that had opened that original gift years ago.  I saw a little bit of that magic that fades away with age.  But that was when I realized that the magic doesn't need to go away.  The magic of the gift is not in the price tag.  The magic is there when we realize the gift is a sign.  It is a sign of the affection and understanding that exists between those we love.

And now whenever I shop for a gift or make it, I try as best I can to make other people feel as special as I do when I open up a present from my wife.  When I do, be it small or large, I look past it to the sweet, gentle soul that worked so hard to find just the right gift for me, because in her eyes I'm special.

If we can do that with our Christmas gifts this year, that will be the real present: the gift of magic.

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