Christmas Gifts

When Mishap Leads to Memory

I grew up in a home where the presentation of a gift was as important as what the box held inside. At Christmas, my mom and her best friend, my godmother Annie, would lock themselves up in a bedroom with footlockers full of wrapping paper and ribbon, sharp scissors, red pens, and an ironing board to make sure that no bows drooped on their watch. They spent hours writing messages on the gift tags to clue the receiver into what was inside the package, and they often spoke in hushed tones about the “secret code” they had to ensure that a present never got mixed up and they always knew what was inside.

I’m a low-maintenance girl, but I have kept up the wrapping tradition. And tonight, if I can somehow manage to haul up my drawers of ribbon and garbage cans full of wrapping paper, I may turn my bedroom into Santa’s Workshop and get started. It’s been nearly two decades since I figured out that the “secret code” had nothing to do with the pattern of the wrapping paper or the color of the ribbon tied to the package. Just like my mom and godmother, I write on the bottom of each package in tiny little letters who it’s for and what’s inside.

At least, usually I do.

Last Christmas, between graduate school deadlines and preparing for family and the all-consuming stress of our adoption taking up every spare thought, I was less organized than usual. My parents and my sister’s family were arriving two days before Christmas (which is my daughter’s birthday), so I told my family that if they mailed me their presents, I would wrap them and then we would do the “tagging and bowing” together. It was my nephew Sam’s first Christmas, so everyone was going overboard, and nearly every day something arrived in the mail for him, including (another family tradition) a personalized stoneware baby plate with his name, birth date, and all of his birth stats. I wrapped it up along with all the rest.

On Christmas Eve morning, my mom and sister and I locked the bedroom door and unloaded every gift from my closet. Using the “secret code” we spent the morning writing clues, cracking each other up with our witty comments. And then we came to a package that was completely unmarked. I shook it, but it didn’t sound like Legos. I wracked my brain, but finally, there was nothing to do but open the gift. So I did. And inside, I found the coat, hat, gloves and sweater I’d bought for the Sub for Santa our ward does each year. The only problem? I’d delivered the Sub for Santa present several days earlier, and I knew the gifts had already been distributed.

Like my mother before me, I am a list keeper. I always wondered why I kept a spreadsheet with every Christmas gift I give each year, since I’ve never had an opportunity to refer to it, but that Christmas Eve morning, my mom and I both whipped out our lists. Was the man whose name I’d chosen off the ward tree getting a Razor scooter? A flat-screen tv? A woman’s sweater? While all of those would have been awkward and unusual gifts, the package sitting under his tree was even less useful– it was Sam’s baby plate. An expensive and meaningful gift for my sister, but utterly useless to anyone else.

And so I placed a few calls, and we tracked down the giftee. My dad ran across town and braved the indignity of asking for the present back (he did have the right one to give instead). And my sister was none the wiser on Christmas morning (at least until now).

While we all hope to create good, lasting memories for our families that come from family togetherness and spiritual experiences, some of the best Christmas memories come from the oops moments and the mishaps.

Find more of Shelah’s writing at Segullah.org and 
ShelahBooksIt.blogspot.com.