A Christmas Essay (written in 2005) published in my new book, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life (on sale here!).
It’s December twenty-first, and I’m in the gift frenzy of the Christmas craze. Have I remembered everyone? Have I given them enough? Will someone give me something when I haven’t give them anything, and will I get that yucky feeling of un-thoughtfulness? Whoever said it’s “the most wonderful time of the year” wasn’t in charge of the family gift-giving and never had present anxiety.
The teacher gift craze is really weighing on me this year. My younger two children, Jacob and Leah, are at one elementary school, and Daniel is at another one. Here is the teacher gift count to date: with the office staff, nurses, and all the teachers, including art and music, I had ten gifts ready. We passed them out after the Christmas program, and I realized we forgot the gym teacher and the school counselor. Now, we’re at an even dozen.
At Daniel’s school, it’s about the same: hard-working, wonderful people who do amazing work, which add up to eleven more gifts. It’s a good thing I run a home business with a skin care and cosmetics company, and can go to my shelf to wrap sugar scrubs, body lotions, and after-shave balms. Yet, at nearly two dozen gifts just for teachers, it adds up, even at wholesale prices.
But here is my dilemma: Daniel, a fifth grader, goes to the middle school for eighth-grade algebra. I was hoping to draw the line at junior high as far as teacher gifts. If I give this one eighth-grade teacher a gift, it feels like opening Pandora’s gift box. Two dozen teachers’ gifts for three children would turn into three and four dozen over the junior high and high school years. Leah is only in first grade. I felt overwhelmed, but couldn’t seem to give myself permission to not give the algebra teacher a gift. I asked Daniel. No, he didn’t need to give her a gift. I asked my husband. No, he didn’t need to give her a gift. He didn’t need to give some of the previous two dozen gifts either, but, God bless him, he had the restraint not to tell me so at that moment.
I didn’t get a gift together for the algebra teacher, but I still felt uncomfortable about it. It fed my anxiety about other presents. Once I delivered the teacher gifts, I looked at the list. I had put ten boxes in the mail to family and friends, including one birthday present. Oh, no! I had forgotten the UPS deliveryman, Jeff, who comes to my house regularly, and the mail carrier. Amazed that I had anything left, I pulled something off the shelf to wrap for them later.
Perhaps I could bake pumpkin bread for the neighbors, and what about the children of our former neighbors who have lovingly sent us several Christmas ornaments from our nation’s capital? I wanted to send them and their daughter something for Hanukkah. I still needed to get my grandmother’s gift and my brother’s birthday gift in the mail. Perhaps I could pull something together quickly, pick up a Hanukkah gift, add it to the box, and get to the post office with these last boxes before my 10 a.m. appointment.
I hurriedly wrapped up some cologne. I looked at the table to grab the packing tape and get ready to go. Something was wrong. Shoot! I had put the woman’s name on the UPS guy’s gift. Wow, good thing I caught that; she probably wouldn’t want a men’s fragrance. I’m not sure UPS Jeff would like Velocity for Women either—it has “a light citrus fragrance with a banana flower top note.”
I rushed to the bathroom to apply my makeup with this ambitious, frenzied plan in mind to get all this done before 10 a.m. I turned on National Public Radio while I put on my makeup; “Morning Edition” was still on the air. They were doing a story on a former telecommunications executive who retired at fifty-seven but lost half his savings in the dot-com bust in the late 1990s. He bleached his gray beard, moustache, and eyebrows white and went to Santa School with one thousand other men who looked just like him, in order to earn money during the holiday season.
I thought it was kind of sad until I realized he seemed to relish the joy and meaning this job brought to his life, which he didn’t have in his previous work. A little boy sat on his lap and whispered in his ear. Santa whispered back. The boy got off Santa’s lap and said with glee, “Santa loves me!”
Why couldn’t I hear that Santa loves me before applying the new ultra, lash-thickening, volumizing mascara? Tears flowed. I looked like a football player ready to battle the opponent and the sun’s glare. Santa loves me. This one simple declaration on the radio laid bare all of the present anxiety that I seem to have every year. I thought I had outgrown it, dealt with it, gotten over it, and moved on, but the gift-frenzy of the morning told another story. The gifts I give and the anxiety I feel are hungering after one simple desire: to be loved. All I need to know is that God loves me, my mother and father love me, my husband and children love me, my extended family and friends love me, the teachers I want to thank with gifts love me, and, indeed, even Santa loves me.
I grew up in a family where feelings were not often openly expressed. I’ve heard Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion say that we Scandinavians don’t talk about the things that are most precious to us—our faith and our feelings. This meant that presents carried a lot of meaning because they expressed our feelings. They are not tokens; they are it. Love was expressed not just in the gift itself, but also in how it was beautifully wrapped with lovely bows. My mom, who was superb at making each gift special, was on the cutting edge of bow fashion. If the “in” thing was spiked, we had spiked; super curly, we had it; bow gifts, we were the first. We even had a bow maker. My artistic, older sister made beautiful bows and wrapped packages with sharp corners. I never could get mine to look as good; my bows were a floppy mess, and my corners were mushy.
If the gift needed to communicate all the love and appreciation, gratitude, affection, and thoughtfulness I feel toward people, my gifts were always coming up short. Maybe my family wouldn’t know how much I love them or see it in this lame bow I’ve made. Worse yet, what if I find out that they don’t really love me? Thus, present anxiety; apparently, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Great.
The simple declaration, “Santa loves me!” from the story on the radio reminds me that I truly am loved before I have given or received a single gift. And this is true even if I don’t get the present right, wrap it with sharp corners, or ever make it to the cutting edge of bow fashion. This declaration of love didn’t change my course today. I still went to the store for that last gift, put the package together at the post office, and mailed off my Hanukkah gifts, birthday gift, and the last of the Christmas gifts. But I kept thinking about the junior high algebra teacher. What did I really want to tell to her? I really wanted to communicate appreciation and gratitude, which I could do by writing her a thoughtful note in a holiday card. I decided that’s what I would do for her and anyone else in the junior high and high school who would have a significant impact on my children’s education and lives. This gave me a freeing, peaceful feeling.
Hearing that Santa loves me was the only Christmas gift I needed this year. It was God’s way of telling me that he loves me no matter what, and I really can just relax and be loved.
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