There is this great desire to be known. To be recognized for who one is. We need signals from the intimate world, from the people closest to us, that we have been observed and found out. And around Christmas time, we start to hope that the gifts will be those signals — that someone will unearth or make the item that will tell us we are known, and we are prized for who we are.
We know we are loved. But are we known? That we worry about in our heart of hearts.
As I child, I always loved Christmas and looked forward to it each year. My sister Sally and I shared a room for a long time, and every Christmas Eve we would lie in our beds wriggling with delight over what Santa and the morning would bring. It was hard to sleep, and we would kick and bicycle our legs deliberately to get rid of the energy. In later years, after the dream of Santa was behind us, I still endowed Christmas with much hope — a great, great deal of it — even though my rational mind knew that, with knowledge, the magic had dissolved.
When I was about 14 or maybe older, I received from my parents the gift of an antique wicker chair and table that had come from my mother’s Aunt Gert’s house. The set had been dusted off, and my mother had sewn a new cushion set. Intellectually, I could tell this was a special gift. I said thank you, and even now I hope I outwardly seemed grateful and happy. I wasn’t happy, though. I don’t recall if there was something in particular I wanted, but it wasn’t a family hand-me-down. I was a teenager, so perhaps boots or clothes or a record player or hot rollers would have been more worth getting.
I don’t actually remember the nuances of what I felt beyond the shock of seeing the table and chair, around the corner from the living room, too big to be put under the tree. I have a mental snapshot of the moment, and in trying to stand there in the same place again, looking at the table and chair, all I feel is the force of my own self-control: try to be thankful, try to keep your cool, try to appreciate the meaning and effort that mum has put into this.
The effort to accept a gift that one doesn’t want is so great.
I still have that chair and table. Many years ago, I updated the table, marbling the top, when I took a furniture-painting class. The chair has been professionally restored by a wicker man, who told me the chair is a classic, and he may have even named its style, but I don’t remember it. There is a little piece of wicker on the arm rest that has broken off, and I have put it aside, intending to glue it back.
Over many years, I have come to appreciate the table and chair and am glad to own them. For me, they are bound up in thoughts of my mother, who is on the young side and still alive, and her late Aunt Gert, whom I met only a few times but whose story I know well. She was the daughter of the housekeeper who married my mother’s maternal grandfather after her maternal grandmother died, and Gert’s mother helped him raise his double handful of children. Gert was one child among the 10+ Harney children. She was fatherless and became a Harney when her mother married into them. My mother often wondered how that had been for Gert, a solitary girl suddenly surrounded by siblings and having to share her own mother.
The chair and table are not my favorite ones — they are not the most comfortable or the most useful — but they are my most storied ones.
The mother of three children myself, I am the gift giver now. Christmas is no longer about me, and I don’t feel magic in the days leading up to it. Inwardly, I may be groaning over the work to be done, the pressure at creating magic. When I shop, or when Jimmy and I shop together, I may be working off a detailed list provided by the children themselves, or I may be improvising and trying to find gifts that Eli or Lydia or Grace will be glad to receive. I balance two contradictions: the wish to provide a bounty and to provide a singular experience.
“Christmas is our equivalent of harvest time.” This is the thought I had when wrapping my pile of purchases. Perhaps the urge to gather is deep inside us, and if there are not berries and fruits to search the forest for, there are jeans and books and boots to search the malls for.
The trick is to gather enough. No, to gather more than enough.
Maybe in compiling lots of gifts, there will be one gift in the pile that will be the signal, that will make the recipient feel that she is known.
Inside there is still the child, the one who loves novelty and being delighted and also the one who worries about being loved not enough.
There have been a few times in my adult life when I have been overwhelmed inside by disappointment in the face of ample gifts. I have wanted to cry or cry out in sadness or anger. “This is not me. This is not me.” Once I did cry, a big burst, on my fortieth birthday in fact, for the dearth of what I wanted.
In general, my rational adult mind counsels me to be still, to express the gratitude that is deserved.
The tension between these two feelings can be immense, can scour you out inside.
Yesterday I had a good Christmas. We slept until a humane time, not awoken early by a Santa-believing young child for the first time in 20 years. I baked. We opened gifts, ate, and started getting ready for the Kokernaks & Company, who were arriving at 1:30pm for lunch and dessert and more gifts. I had a good time with them, and we liked all the family gifts.
Grace, who is 12, was notably delighted with her new ukelele, scooter, and Uggs that she got under the tree. In the morning, I could tell that Eli and Lydia — already past the age of innocence — were not filled with joy so much as the will to accept what one has been given. It is a tough struggle. I feel for them.
Could it be different? Could it be possible for Christmas Day to be a time of soul-to-soul communication? Because that’s what the perfect gift promises: connection, and a feeling inside of having been found out in all of one’s secret beauty or lovability.
Although she was not privy to my inner thoughts, Grace has suggested that next year each person gets one gift from each of us. In doing so, we would eschew bounty and aim for singularity. There would be a risk in that — as much a chance of one big fail as one big hit.
I wonder, though, if is it even possible to express our great love for and recognition of each other through commerce. Can I tell Lydia, for example, how much I have noticed her uniqueness by some item that is made and produced and packaged by people who don’t know her?
Even now, typing that, I feel a kind of despair about shopping that is hard to articulate in a clear statement.
It may be that we need to learn to manage our expectations, as my mother said yesterday about her relationships with others. Her words are sage — and this may indeed be what maturity is — and yet there is a great deal of sustained loss incorporated in her insight. We learn to withstand it over time.
I do wish, as gift getter, to be more than loved. And I do want, as gift giver, to tell you that I have seen you, studied you every time I’ve seen you, and I know you.
Some gifts hurt us, yet we keep them, and over time we may come to understand what was meant by them, and what they mean.