I wore a scratchy red and black plaid dress, uncomfortable white nylon tights and stiff black patent Mary Janes, but my discomfort was no match for my jittery anticipation. I was six years old, and my family was headed to my father’s company Christmas party. There was probably music, food, desserts and games, but what I remember most is the brilliantly ornamented tree and the gifts sitting under its branches. Late in the evening, way too late by my account, the adults called us to the tree in a painstakingly eternal process.
“Ann?” they began calling us, one by one.
When I finally heard my name, I restrained myself from sprinting up the aisle and then gently clasped my beautiful gift to my chest. Underneath the curly ribbon and pretty paper, was the only toy I’d receive that Christmas.
“Dear God,” I silently prayed as I sat back in my seat, “please, please be something good.”
I wasn’t raised under dire financial circumstances. In fact, I grew up with just enough – a warm house, clothes, food, and money to pay the bills. However, my parents were frugal Chinese immigrants with a poor understanding of American customs. Beneath our blatantly artificial and sparsely decorated Christmas tree were a few wrapped boxes topped with inexpensive bows, each filled with clothes, underwear and socks – items we needed, but didn’t dance in our heads with sugar plums. We’d carefully unwrap our presents where the tape met the paper, so the wrapping could be used again for next year’s new underwear.
Excess simply didn’t exist in our lives – not on our dinner plates, bookshelves, toy shelves or our celebrations. But, in my heart I longed for something more – something to represent the good things, so life wouldn’t feel it was only about saving and sacrifice.
Today, those shiny Mary Janes and white party tights are a distant memory and another Christmas is just around the corner. Every year since I’ve had my own children, I’m very cognizant of how vastly different our family celebrations are compared to those of my youth. The fresh scent of our Christmas tree permeates our home, decorated wreaths accent the entrances and lighted garland spirals up the staircases and along the porch railings. A pile of well-wrapped gifts will appear on Christmas morning. Some will be practical, maybe a new set of fleecy pajamas, and some not so practical. (After all, Santa is anything but – no one should wear red and white fur while sliding down a chimney). Our blessings create quite a different conundrum – the quandary of excess.
As I anticipate the sparkle in the eyes of my children – their pure and joyous delight as they sprint down the stairs and search for the presents Santa and his little elves have delivered especially for them, I hope I don’t see the drunken look kids get when they’ve had too much. It’s the moment they become shark-eyed present-opening robots hidden under a sea of torn tissue paper – when their wells of gratitude have run dry. It’s a sight we’ve all seen, perhaps at a child’s birthday party, or maybe it was last Christmas when one or two presents from every relative equaled aisles three, four and five at Toys R Us. It happens when the purpose of the occasion is forgotten. When I see “that look”, it forms a pit in my stomach.
Somewhere, there’s a perfect place between scarcity and excess. It’s difficult to find in our super-sized culture, but it’s where children feel loved and celebrated and the spirit of the season is palpable. It’s a place of true gratitude – where giving and receiving are enjoyed in equal measures.
If we could bottle up that wide-eyed Christmas Eve anticipation, mix it with the right amounts of celebration, love and maybe a teeny bit of excess (because after all, it’s Christmas!), we’d have “that magical moment”. The sweet combination of heaven on earth I felt on the way back to my seat clutching my toy when I was six.
Even then, I knew in my heart it was something special to hold onto.