Many years ago, I learned a valuable lesson about gifts and the meaning of the holidays. I was working in a hospital as a medical laboratory professional and for a number of reasons, looked forward to the holiday celebrations that year more than I had in some time. I was at a point in my young adult life where more traditional activities were beginning to replace the foolish activities of a young sailor and I awaited the holiday party and gift exchange at work with happy anticipation.
I shopped for my gift exchange contribution with care; pondering the appreciation factor of the person who would end up with it, and knowing that it was just right. I wrapped it with special attention, and when the day of the party arrived, I carefully packed it along with my food contribution into my car and headed to work on the 2nd shift in the lab.
As can happen on clinical units in a hospital, it turned out to be a really busy night. We still managed to nibble on the treats, wearing our Santa hats as we worked the lab benches and enjoyed the holiday music,… but it wasn’t what most of us had hoped for on the night of our party (things were a little less strict back in those days when it came to food in clinical areas).
When the time came for the gift exchange, we gathered in the break room. I ended up with a small, handled brown gift bag with red & green tissue paper. No names were on the gifts, so I had no idea who had contributed this gift in the attractive packaging. When I pulled the gift out of the bag it, my heart sank. It was a very plain 3″ grapevine wreath with 3 thin ribbons tied around it and ending in a tied bow. At this point in my life (many decades later), I don’t know what I could have been expecting, but I have a vivid memory of the crestfallen feeling that washed over my body.
I was so disappointed and I felt let down – by myself and by whomever agreed to participate in a $5 gift exchange and then put a plain, 50-cent wreath with some ribbon into the exchange. I was even a little irritated that this person was going to take home one of the many nice $5 gifts. I also simultaneously felt guilty as I heard the admonishment of my mother and grandmother in my ears, as if they had seen the look on my face and were scolding me for being ungrateful.
I was ungrateful and disappointed and felt very let down by the process, and the whole holiday season that year.
At the time I received the little wreath, I was expecting an inanimate object – a gift exchange gift – to create happiness and joy for me that Christmas. Without the benefit of maturity, Truth teaching and a new perspective, it was many years until I fully understood that creating happiness and enjoying the holidays was an inside job; not dependent on a wreath – of any size or accouterments – or on jewelry, clothes and other shiny objects wrapped in glistening paper and tied with sparkling ribbon.
I had a bountiful and blessed childhood with magical Christmases that included a visit from Santa to Grandma and Grandpa’s house after church on Christmas Eve, followed by his visit to our home in the middle of the night so we could wake up to a 2nd present-explosion under the tree at our house. Today I can remember only a handful of the many, MANY gifts I received over the years. Most of the carefully-selected Christmas surprises I gleefully unwrapped or pulled from a bulging stocking have been lost to the years in my memory.
What I do remember are the people who were with us as we tore open paper and tossed ribbons and bows; the smell of my grandparents’ farmhouse at Christmas, the smiles on the faces of great-grandparents as they watched the paper fly, and the sound of Silver Bells on the organ when Grandma played (she liked the tremelo setting). I remember a large dining room table bedecked in trays of enough Christmas cookies to feed an army and twinkling lights tucked into evergreen that was draped around the staircase banister and laid carefully on fireplace mantle. I remember feeling sleepy, laying on Grandma’s couch and listening to the voices of adults – adults who thought the moon and the sun rose and set in my sister and I – chatting in the other room, muffled by the crackling fireplace and Christmas music playing from LP albums stacked in succession in the wooden cabinet stereo. I remember the sleepy ride home, and knowing it was time to wake up and go out in the cold when the tires crunched on the gravel driveway. I can still smell the coffee and see the sleepy look on my parents faces as on Christmas morning we bounded out of bed to see what Santa had once again, brought for us. I remember the year I realized that Santa’s handwriting looked suspiciously like my mother’s and have a vivid recollection of sitting on a stool in our farmhouse kitchen, quizzing my mother about the veracity of the Santa story.
The most precious gifts at Christmas are the memories we make with people who love us and who demonstrate this by sharing themselves with us in their time, talents and attention. I am thankful for the lesson that little wreath taught me so long ago, helping to nudge my consciousness and teaching me a profound lesson about gifts and Christmas.
We make Christmas special when we appreciate the people around us; when we are grateful for all that we have in our lives; when we remember that clothes, jewelry and trinkets come and go, but the love of the people who care enough to show up for us, at Christmastime and all throughout the year, remains constant across space and time.
This year, pause your gift-opening frenzy and look around the room. Look at each person, and give thanks for them; be grateful that you are so precious to them that you are invited to spend this holy season in their company. Too soon, some of them will be gone. Their absences will be filled by others: spouses, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews and you’ll say goodbye to old traditions and welcome new ones. Some will leave way too soon, while others will enjoy long lives and old age. We never know year to year, who will be back for another holiday celebration, so don’t forget to cherish each one right here and right now.
I still hang that little wreath on my tree, and each time, I smile and whisper “Thank You” to this tiny messenger and its important role in my learning journey.