Growing up, Christmas Eve was a magical time. I’m not sure how much of that magic came from the anticipation of Santa and the morning to come and how much of it came from the fact that by 3 p.m. Christmas day, the ornaments were back in their crypt and the tree was at the curb like the dead shrub that it was. We had to soak up the magic quick before our mother got hold of it with her efficient little fingers. We knew this. We responded accordingly, all of us. We had to hurry up and rejoice already.
My mom was all about getting the season started the first appropriate minute. Back in the 70s, Christmas didn’t start at Halloween. It started the day after Thanksgiving. And since the world offered that as the beginning of beginnings, it was our beginning, too. My Christmas started in Lakeland almost every year. I don’t remember when it didn’t. We spent Thanksgivings at my grandparents’ concrete block house on Belvedere Street. Black Friday was a term I had never heard, but shopping the ENTIRE day after Thanksgiving was an activity I was quite familiar with. We drove back roads to Tampa and spent hours going between East Lake Mall (may it rest in peace) and University Mall (may it become something useful again someday). University Mall was alive with the sights and sounds and bargains of the season and bustling with Santa and shoppers and things that didn’t look like the inside of a county jail. I remember loving the escalators inside department stores and the row of Christmas trees that separated the mattresses from the cookware.
But I wasn’t a shopper. I didn’t get the gene. So when it was all just too much for my dad and me, we would walk to the outside entrance of whatever parking lot held our car and plop down in the grass to wait.
I have a sketchy memory, confirmed by family members, that one year I chose to play a small, dime-store harmonica outside Maas Brothers to be heard by everyone entering or exiting the store. I knew Old Susanna and It’s a Grand Ole Flag. People made comments like, “Hey, where’s your hat?” as they waved money at me. It was a pity play. It’s embarrassing. I was like 14. I knew better.
At any rate, I took a dark road there. That was 1984. I’m backing up to 1980.
When we returned from Lakeland every year, the tree was immediately bought. Always live. There is no other kind. And the boxes came out with decorations. I have no idea where my mother stored them. And we decked our Christmas-smelling evergreen with things like cheap tinsel and ornaments we had been collecting in the family for decades.
That’s when the real magic started. The gifts began to appear daily under the tree and we would make a pass at those gifts once or twice each day, usually around dinnertime. I wasn’t interested in guessing every gift or comparing box shapes to handwritten lists or even necessarily in counting my stash. I was interested in only one thing: picking the perfect Christmas Eve gift. Because our tradition from birth had been to pick out one gift—ANY gift—to open the night of Christmas Eve. I took the selection process seriously. I separated all my gifts into one quadrant of the floor and went to work. Shaking. Weighing with both hands. Weighing with the left hand and then the right. Shimmying. Were there moving parts? Was it breakable? Was it to be played with? Was it clothing? Even in 1980, I knew a tie box from a shirt box from a toy.
I know there had to have been some home runs over the years. As seriously as I took this job from year to year, I had to have picked right and picked smart on at least a couple of occasions. I do not remember a single one of those. What I do remember is my epic strike-out.
On December 24, 1980, we spent the better part of the day begging for a time. Set a time, people. When are we opening our gift? When we were finally told that we could open our choice before dinner, we rushed into the front room and plopped down in front of the tree. It was still daylight. There would still be time to play with whatever it was. I picked up my package, winked at my audience. gave it one last shake, shimmy, and weigh and ripped into it. Oh man. Oh. Man. This was going to be fantastic. I lifted the lid of that box, pulled away the mask of white tissue paper, and beheld them.
Not just gloves, but 1980 fake-leather-and-polyester combo navy blue padded gloves. I put them on and tried hard to get my eyes to sparkle with delight. My hands immediately began to sweat as I stretched them out in front of me. My parents were smiling across the room. My brother was opening something. Something more exciting than gloves. My eyes shifted from my gloved hands to the patches of sunlight on the lawn outside the front window. It was 80 degrees outside. There was no white Christmas. Unless we were referring to the white hot intensity of 1000 suns. With the gloves on my hands, I walked outside to make the best of a bad decision.
I spun around the yard in my short sleeves, my arms twirling with gloves at the end of them. Navy blue, padded gloves that made a muffled p sound when I clapped them together. Christmas magic wilted at my feet, drop by sweaty drop, as I considered what tomorrow might have in store for me. I had a list. I knew I would get something from my list. I thought about all the present testing I had done in preparation for these gloves. An ape playing the stock market could have done better.
It was an epic fail in early gift opening. But it was a victory in Christmas memories. And I learned a little something in the process.
- I learned how to look my sweet grandmother in the eyes and say, “Thank you for the gloves.” To be grateful for what you don’t want (or even need when it’s beach weather outside) is a skill the world needs badly.
- I learned my parents were not going to save me from the gloves. They knew what I’d be opening and they never shot me the “you sure you wanna do that?” look. Somehow I did not learn how not to save my children from the gloves. I coddle them too much.
- I learned that, with me, there’s no difference in 5 minutes with a mysterious gift box and 5 days. I just straight up stink at deduction. I never poured that much effort into picking a gift again. And I never cared that much again.
- I learned how to manufacture Christmas spirit when it’s 80 degrees and my palms were sweating like I was holding two sticks of butter in August. I’ve always lived in Florida. I’ve had to do this many times. Not the butter holding, but the fake Christmas spirit.
- And I learned that it’s actually not about the gloves. It’s not the size of the box or what’s under the tissue of the box. It’s the twinkle in the eyes of the sweet old lady who gave it to you. Or the friend or the parent or the sibling. That twinkle is still there even when your palms are sweaty and the weather’s all wrong. They bought that thing FOR YOU.
So get over yourself, stop shaking the presents, wipe your clammy hands on your jeans and go give someone a hug.
Gather. Thank. Sparkle.