By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
If I concentrate, I can almost feel it: the sense of nearly unbearable excitement that infused my childish heart each year as I anticipated the glory of Christmas. Christmas gifts, to be more honest. I liked the music, the delectable cookies my mother baked, the beauty of lights and ornaments and wreaths. But I was not much different than any other child in my almost physical desire for presents — lots of them. Wonderful ones.
Sometimes, I’d dream about what I might receive. Fueled by frequent page-throughs of the Wish Book — my family’s casual term for the Sears catalog — I’d imagine extravagant presents. When the offerings pictured on the cheap, thin paper failed to inspire me, I’d make up my own imaginary wish list: a three-story dollhouse, not plastic, with real, miniature wallpaper, silverware and a grandfather clock with hands that moved; dresses crafted of luxury fabrics named in storybooks from another century — crepe de chine, taffeta, washed silk. I craved the kind of transformative Christmas gift experience that only happens in children’s novels or fairy tales.
In the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic, “A Little Princess,” the mistreated heroine Sara Crewe awakens one morning in her chilly attic garret to a space transformed by the generosity of the next-door-neighbor’s clever Indian servant:
“In the grate, which had been empty and rusty and cold when she left it, but which now was blackened and polished up quite respectably, there was a glowing, blazing fire. On the hob was a little brass kettle, hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a warm, thick rug; before the fire was a folding-chair, unfolded and with cushions on it; by the chair was a small folding-table, unfolded, covered with a white cloth, and upon it were spread small covered dishes, a cup and saucer, and a tea-pot; on the bed were new, warm coverings, a curious wadded silk robe, and some books. The little, cold, miserable room seemed changed into Fairyland. It was actually warm and glowing. It was like a fairy story come true—it was heavenly.”
In the story, which I read over and over from ages 8 to 12, Sara immediately shares her unexpected treasure with another servant girl, demonstrating that generosity multiplies the pleasure of gifts received.
That’s a detail easily missed. I thought about the fancy tea service and exotic slippers left in my fictional friend’s room far more than I contemplated her kindness to others — though I cannot see a large sticky bun, ever, without visualizing the moment in the story when Sara shares food with a street child even poorer than she is.
That incident wasn’t the one that captured my attention throughout childhood. No, I fantasized about the loot that might make my own Christmas magnificent using a suspension of disbelief that’s echoed in the children’s letters the newspaper publishes each year.
Boys and girls rattle off exhaustive lists of technology, toys and pets, often amending their requests with remarks like, “It’s OK if you can’t do it,” or “I know I’ve been bad,” and so many uses of the word “please” that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. This year, X-Box, iPhone and puppies won the present popularity contest, though more than one child requested tickets to professional football games.
As an adult, I’m all too familiar with the wishful thinking that marks those painstakingly printed letters. The little-girl part of me recalls the wistfulness of imagining a life more bountiful than the perfectly good one I called my own. This longing, like the notion that one has been abandoned by royalty and adopted by strangers who insist on bedtime and brushing of teeth, is a common feature of childhood.
It’s not a bad thing to play pretend. But it should be outgrown.
When we decry the commercialization of Christmas, the lack of financial discipline and all the other blots on the pure spirit of this holy time of year, we are, in a sense, hollering “grow up, already!” at the culture. The notion that a fabulous gift can change everything is appealing — but unlikely to prove true. The belief that one magical morning makes life turn around sounds lovely, but any bill-paying adult knows that one installment does not even the balance.
As we rattle into the homestretch of the Christmas shopping season, I’ve felt twinges of that old longing for glorious excess. My budget won’t let me give way, and I’m glad. I’ve learned to channel that desire into something other than shopping. A phone conversation with a dear friend. Reconnecting with loved ones. Family evenings marked by nothing more than peace, smiles, an occasional burst of laughter.
Candlelight and quiet can transform a room as thoroughly as Sara Crewe’s anonymous benefactor altered her shabby quarters. More significantly, the glow of a flame enjoyed in good company can be one of the best gifts in the world. As the story points out, it was human connection that did the most good for one little girl:
“Suddenly—was it a strange thing for her to do? —Sara put her face down on the queer, foreign looking quilted robe and burst into tears.
‘I don't know who it is,’ she said, ‘but somebody cares about me a little—somebody is my friend.’
Somehow that thought warmed her more than the fire.”
That’s something our young letter-writers have yet to learn. The rest of us who know should count ourselves fortunate. No gift can match the transformative power of love.