The One Christmas I Can’t Forget

The gift taken is the worst given

When I was in fourth grade, my parents both had jobs — a novelty in Northern Maine during the late 1960s but start of a national trend. Dad worked as a supervisor at the food processing plant and mom was night manager at a local hotel/motel. Financially, those were good years, when both my parents generated income. My mother would later lose her position, after the elegant facility burned down under mysterious circumstances. But that’s another story.

Christmas Eve, when my three younger sisters and I could open one present, I hardly could contain my want. Actually, I couldn’t contain it. My parents had gone out to food shop, preparation for feast as part of a spectacularly planned Christmas Day. They could afford to spend more on us that year than ever. Quite excited were they to give to their kids.

The food shopping capped off the preparation, while a babysitter watched us at home. I nagged. And nagged. And nagged. And nagged. And nagged the babysitter to let us open our one present, not to wait for my parents’ return. Eventually, she relented.

Choosing was the hardest part. The gift had to be a small one, particularly something sanctioned by the babysitter’s thin parental authority. I chose a box appropriately tiny, then tore off the paper with great enthusiasm. But my excitement collapsed when my choice turned out to be a crummy, Matchbox car. My sisters may have gotten better; I don’t recall.

Soon as mom and dad returned, lugging boxes, not bags, of groceries, I yelled out accusation: “The girls [family slang for my sisters] opened their Christmas Eve presents”. Between the hauling of groceries and quizzing the babysitter, my parents wouldn’t immediately get the sordid story, or the identity of the culprit. Me. My dad treated us all with equal guilt, although I was old enough to comprehend the extent of wrongdoing and the heavier weight of my own culpability.

The family tradition had always been to gather `round and read from the Bible, usually the account of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke. Afterwards, we four children could open our Christmas Eve present. We violated the tradition, thick with meaning and memory, and singed our parents’ heart to give.

The small incident devastated dad, who had so looked forward to watching joyful faces opening presents — faces instead intent on taking for granted rather than receiving with gratitude. He bitterly expressed his disappointment and wish to cancel Christmas altogether, the biggest possible lump of coal any child could imagine.

I felt truly regretful. Maybe a year, definitely more, younger and I would have pained with the sorrow of getting caught. By fourth grade, maturity reached the point where I could understand my father’s hurt and so lament his heart to give that my greed snatched. Presents were important — heck, I was a kid — but dad’s disappointment meant more, and I knew that it was my fault.

Sure, we had Christmas, the best toys ever and a great feast. But I don’t remember a single toy from that holiday, other than the crummy car, or from many others, really. But that one Christmas I hurt my parents, particularly my dad, I could never forget.

To him and to everyone else: Merry Christmas!

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Originally published at joewilcox.com on December 24, 2005.