This Christmas essay was posted five years ago on the Dispatches from a Northern Town blog. As this year of 2020 comes to an end, a year of much trial and turmoil and suffering, Christmas gifts for my grandchildren seemed even more significant and meaningful, especially since the year brought us a new granddaughter.
I offer this essay again in the hopeful spirit of the season and the wish that the year ahead will be brighter and more cheerful. Merry Christmas to all my readers.
Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
― Peg Bracken (1918-2007), American humor writer
I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month.
― Harlan Miller (b. 1964), British writer and artist
It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas means a little bit more.
― Dr. Seuss (1904-91), Theodor Seuss Geisel, American writer and illustrator of children’s books
Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do. So the Lord has spread the task among us all. That’s why everybody is Santa Claus. I am. You are.”
― Truman Capote (1924-84), American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter
Christmas gifts for my grandchildren
Gift wrap, ribbons, and bows will not adorn the gifts I most want to give my grandchildren this Christmas season. The truly important gifts need no decoration or embellishment because they are not material things.
That does not mean they are not real. To the contrary, they are the most real and substantial and valuable possessions in my power to grant.
Technically, these are not Christmas gifts because they will not be opened under the ornament bedecked cedar tree in the big kitchen of our farmhouse Yuletide morning. These gifts will be unwrapped through the course of the coming years, on this day or that, in this place or another, with pomp and circumstance or with casual notice, some with joyful enthusiasm and some with somber contemplation. I may be there to witness some of the gift-sharing, but it is likely that the most valuable presents will come to light on a day of solitude.
Offering these gifts is easy for us codgers who have reached the time of life when we know the importance of sharing this stuff. Receiving them is the awkward part of the exchange because lacking the knowledge and insight we have gained from experiences, both good and bad, our grandchildren are usually bemused and often baffled by gifts that initially seem to have no practical use. They accept these strange gifts because they want to please Grandpa, and they do their best to seem grateful, but it may be a while before they come to regard them as something of great value.
Unlike the battery-powered toys that come out of brightly colored boxes and are playthings for a few weeks or months before they are dropped in a plastic tub and consigned to a storage locker, these gifts I want to give become more and more useful and functional over the years. They become more bright and shiny, they do not break or wear out, and their power never, ever runs down.
A grandparent can never know for sure, but we hope that someday these gifts, during grandchildren’s moments of recollection and reflection, will be remembered, understood, and cherished.
So what are these gifts exactly? Well, I would like to give each of my grandchildren a squirrel hunt on a brisk October afternoon to introduce them to the excitement and wonder and reality of hunting, of the blood sports. We live in a society where we are divorced from the natural world and its workings, the reciprocal relationship we all have with the Earth, the give-and-take, growth-and-harvest, birth-life-and-death cycle that involves all mortal beings. I want them to understand and respect that cycle so they will better understand all life is interconnected.
Toward the same end, I would like to give each of them:
– Days of tent camping in a primitive area where their sustenance and comfort depends on their energy, ingenuity, and mutual work.
– The opportunity to learn the woes and wonders of cooking over an open fire.
– An evening at a music concert and another at a live stage production, hopefully with a chance to meet the performers, so they can imagine their own powers of creativity and expression.
– A night on the prairie under the stars.
– A few lessons in how to train a puppy to behave as a considerate and respectful member of the family.
– A long afternoon of kite flying.
– Encouragement to memorize a favorite poem. (Limericks don’t count, although it is good to know several of those, too.)
– Lessons on recognizing different species of trees and shrubs – and prairie grasses and forbs.
– Bird-watching days with their grandmother to learn to identify different species of birds, especially the hawks and owls, which I do not claim to do well.
I also want to give them hands-on instruction in:
– How to throw a curve ball.
– How to hit a curve ball.
– How to hoe a garden.
– How to tie a variety of fisherman’s knots.
– How to use a ratchet wrench without splitting your knuckles.
– How to call ducks. How to call varmints.
– How to operate a chainsaw.
– How to use an ax and splitting maul.
– How to handle firearms.
– How to sharpen a knife, arrowhead, ax, and brush hook.
– How to paddle a canoe, from both the front and back seats.
– How to write a simple declarative sentence and punctuate it correctly.
– How to shoot a bird on the wing.
– How to turn the 6-4-3 double play.
– How to drive a car or pickup with a manual shift transmission.
There are several gifts I would like to give but must find ways to grant these boons without their mothers knowing about it. For example:
– How to blow your nose without a handkerchief.
– How to spit correctly.
– How to smoke a cigar.
– How to cut your own hair with a pet clipper.
– How to whittle.
– How and when to use the appropriate swear words.
– How to do self-surgery and stitches on minor injuries.
– How to drink four cans of beer from the six-pack without your fishing buddy being any the wiser.
Probably the greatest gift I can give my grandsons is mastering the skill that has been the most beneficial of my life:
– How to marry the most beautiful woman in the world.
These gifts will require several “Christmas Days,” of course, but if I can deliver them all before my role as Santa Claus is played out and done, I will be one jolly old elf. Or at least a contented curmudgeon.