If we’re fortunate enough to live a fairly long life, chances are we’ve managed to accumulate some pretty special loot, considering all the Christmases we’ve celebrated. I don’t remember every gift I’ve ever received, but I sure remember a lot of them, and I remember those for different reasons. Trying to determine my “Best Christmas Present Ever” would be pretty tough.
Reaching far back into my childhood, I recall some of those gifts. My first real bike. A 10-speed, with those fancy curled handlebars. It wasn’t made for climbing the hills and mountains of East Tennessee, but someone forgot to tell my kid self so. It probably wasn’t made for attempting to jump creeks, either, but there I was, on my way to another crash landing.
I remember tons of model cars, ships and airplanes. Can’t tell you about all of them, but I can tell you about the USS Arizona model Dad got me. He was a sailor in WWII, and he’d sailed on a similar ship. I knew the story of the Arizona and Pearl Harbor. My uncle had served there around the time of the attack. I probably took more time and care on that particular model than with any other I ever assembled.
I remember the pair of binoculars Dad gave me. He waited until my siblings were finished opening their stuff, and he pulled me into a different room. He said he’d noticed how much prowling I loved to do in the mountains surrounding our home. He thought I’d love having those binoculars for exploring. He was right. They went with me on every trip afterward.
As I got older, I got more “big boy” toys. I got my first shotgun at 15 years old. I was proud, not just because I had my very own gun, but because my Dad considered me enough of a man to have one. I still remember his first conversation with me about my new responsibility: “You don’t kill anything just to kill it. If you kill it, you’re gonna eat it.”
Then I grew up, and the meaning of Christmas changed. It wasn’t as special, mostly because I was serving in the Marine Corps and rarely got to go home. We barracks bachelors just hung around and moped, double-dog daring anyone to play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” That was a guaranteed brawl in the making.
But one year, a young Marine and his wife invited me to their home for the holiday. They fed me dinner, and they gave me a small gift. It was just a T-shirt of my favorite band at the time, but the idea that they’d thought enough to get me anything at all meant the world to me.
Lots and lots of gifts from people who thought enough of me to spend their hard-earned money on me.
Over time, however, things happen to those gifts. I rode the tires off that bicycle until it was nothing more than a reclamation project for a junkyard. The model I built didn’t survive the wrestling matches my brothers and I held on a regular basis. I lost those binoculars on the side of a mountain somewhere. I still have the old shotgun, but I don’t tote it around any mountains nowadays.
And that old band T-shirt faded into little more than a dust rag.
Then there are the other “gifts” we receive. The homemade ones. Anyone who grew up broke (and like some of us, stayed that way well into adulthood) likely has a collection of those little tokens of love. If we don’t have the object itself, we’ve darned sure held onto the memory of receiving it. I still remember my baby brother Jack presenting me on Christmas day with a toilet-paper wrapped “gift.” It was a baseball card of his favorite player. We’d chewed a lot of plywood-hard bubble gum that summer while scouring packs of cards just to find that one player. That he would part with it just to make sure I got a Christmas gift from him still beats anything money can buy.
I’ve gotten drawings and colored pages from my daughters and my grandchildren. My grandson created a portrait of a soldier carrying another on his back. Atticus used his toys as models and presented his old Marine grandfather with the gift. It’s in a frame in my office, where it will stay long after I croak.
On my desk is another framed item: My daughter found my favorite passage from my favorite book ever. She typed it up in old-school Courier font and framed it in a rustic wooden frame.
These gifts are priceless to me.
Homemade gifts. Someone spent the time and effort to make something that, even if it doesn’t last forever, the memory will.
Still, maybe nothing will ever beat the homemade gift I received last Christmas. I’ll rewind a little. Six years ago, my wife and I bought a house. It’s not a mansion by any means, but it’s my first home purchase. I’m pretty proud of the house and my big backyard, not just because I consider it beautiful, but mostly because I now have my very own home after all these years. Most of my adult life involved yanking up any beginnings of roots. The military life guarantees short stays wherever one is stationed.
Susie set about turning the house into a real home. She found the right furniture and decorations, and she keeps candles burning every night. For Christmas, she decorates our big, open living room with a big tree, stockings and other beautiful items. For a guy who spent most of his existence in what civilized people would only consider a bear’s cave, I sure do appreciate her touch on our home.
We’d bought the house with all its room inside and out with the idea that our grown children — and, eventually, our grandchildren — would flock there for the holidays.
The problem? The kids somehow managed to create their own lives. They don’t all live here in our hometown, and their schedules don’t always match ours.
For the first five years, it was impossible to get everyone together simultaneously for Christmas. We’d have a few here and a few there, but never all on the same day.
Not until last year. Somehow, the planets and Christmas stars aligned, and we all spent Christmas together. In-laws, outlaws and other family members visited.
Man, we were stacked like cords of firewood in our home. I don’t know how many times I stepped on — or tripped over — a kid or a grand-dog. Good thing I have a big lap. It stayed full with two or three of the little brats at a time.
When the time came to hand out gifts from under the tree, I simply stood back in the rear of the room and watched and listened as it all unfolded. Lord, it was loud. The little ones doing their ripping and squealing, the older ones laughing and talking, the holiday music playing in the background.
All of this, right there in front of me — right in my home.
The home my wife and I made together.
That, friends, is the real definition of a “home-made” gift. My “Best Christmas Present Ever.”
And it’s one I know I’ll never, ever forget.