My eldest daughter caught on to the concept of “Christmas as gift-giving” long before she caught on to the concept of “Christmas as a single day.” As a preschooler, she’d spend the weeks leading up to Christmas wrapping anything and everything she could find around the house in towels, pillowcases, tissues, etc., before giving them, with much ceremony, to me or my husband or her toddler brother.
“Merry Christmas!” she’d call gleefully, handing me that day’s fifth iteration of my car keys wrapped in tin foil. Her eyes would sparkle as she waited, sometimes clapping her hands, for me to open my “present.”
I’ll confess to being a bit Scrooge-ish about the whole enterprise. On more than one occasion, I know I asked her, “Honey, can’t you just wait? Can’t you wait for, yanno, actual Christmas?” Like Uncle Jesse teaching Nicki and Alex to sing a mother’s day song for Becky on Full House, I wanted my kids to wait until the actual day.
I stressed that on Christmas, she would be getting presents, not just giving them. And on Christmas, these would be actual presents—not my hairbrush wrapped in a sock. But she didn’t care.
This was a kid who was going to do Christmas her way. In the dwindling days before the Big Day, we took our little family to the mall, for a reason that I’m sure seemed like a good one at the time. We’d never done anything “Santa” with our kids, for a variety of reasons, although we had told them the legend of Saint Nicholas and that some people like to believe that Santa is real. As we walked the crowded mall, my daughter started clamoring to go and see Santa. I looked at the crazy long line of candy-cane-hyped children, and tried to talk her out of it. She was adamant. Oh well, I finally said. It’s not like we have anything against Santa. If you want to stand in this ridiculously long line, I’ll do it. At least we’ll come out on the other end with a cute picture.
We waited. And waited. And waited. Her younger brother, less enthused by this endeavor, took off running multiple times. “Honey, are you sure you want to see Santa?” I asked. And I must have asked a hundred times. Every time, the answer was “Yes.”
We finally made it to Santa. My daughter wouldn’t sit on his lap. My son took off running again, my husband in pursuit. Santa leaned toward my daughter and asked her what she wanted for Christmas.
She blinked at him. “I want to tell you something,” she said, and took a deep breath. “Christmas isn’t about getting, it’s about giving,” she enunciated carefully, quoting a line I instantly recognized from VeggieTales. “And it’s especially about a little baby named Jesus, who was the greatest gift of all.”
Having thus delivered her message, she turned to me. “I’m done now, Mommy,” she said. “We can go home.”
She wouldn’t tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas. She didn’t want a picture. As I recall, she wouldn’t even take the proffered candy cane. She just wanted to make sure that Santa knew what Christmas was really all about.
I’d like to think that by the next day my heart had instantly changed, Grinch-style, about the constant giving of pre-Christmas presents. In truth, it was probably more of a slow evolution. But what I eventually realized was that my daughter’s gift-giving wasn’t a failure to wait. Instead, what she was doing was finding joy in the waiting. She didn’t need a present that was shiny and new; the only present she wanted was my expression of joy when I pulled my left shoe from a pillowcase.
My young daughter didn’t need a present that was shiny and new; the only present she wanted was my expression of joy when I pulled my left shoe from a pillowcase.
Now a teenager, my daughter has gifted her joy of pre-Christmas presents to all four of her younger siblings. And I’ve learned to come along for the ride. At the beginning of the Christmas season I give my little gift-givers their own wrapping paper, and commence a month of unwrapping ornaments they’ve swiped off the tree, and spoons, and the electric bill, and, on one occasion, cheese. (We then instituted a rule that you can’t wrap perishable food.) When my younger daughter was in preschool, she wrapped and gave with all the feverish devotion of her older sister, stopping once to come and enlist my help with a problem she had with her scissors that prevented her from cutting the wrapping paper.
“What is the problem with the scissors?” I asked her.
“The problem with the scissors,” she said gravely, “is that they are inside the present.” And so they were—all wrapped up in wrapping paper she couldn’t cut, because the scissors were inside.
We wait, and we find joy in the waiting. Because all the gifts my children gave me are, indeed, gifts.
The day after we got our Christmas tree this year I came downstairs to find my two youngest, ages eight and five, giggling and jumping around. My eight-year-old had her hands suspiciously behind her back, and I knew what was coming.
“We wrapped you a present!” she yelled, pulling a small box out from behind her back. It was a beautiful box, tied with an actual bow, and for a moment I missed the days of presents wrapped in dirty laundry.
I stopped whatever I was doing and sat down and opened the present, a collection of handmade ornaments, days before Christmas. Because my VeggieTales-quoting daughter was right, all those years ago: Christmas isn’t about getting, it’s about giving. And my children want nothing more than to give, even during the season of waiting.