When I was about 9, I went Christmas window-shopping at Chicago’s Water Tower Place with my grandma. I fell in love with a small stuffed Mr. Jeremy Fisher, the Beatrix Potter frog character. I loved the pastel pink satin jacket, his debonair black boots and paisley morning tie. Part of my lust for this plush treasure was the fact that I was sure I would never receive such a frivolous gift. After all, in my family, presents were usually practical: a viola, which my parents, grandparents and I all chipped in for, or school shoes or a winter coat, which I’d picked out and tried on beforehand.
And so on Christmas day when I opened my Grandmother’s gift to me, I was stunned and touched to find the pastel stuffed animal. It was a rare surprise, and also a gesture that my whims had been noticed and honored. I am one of the least sentimental people I know—a quality attributed to my Northern European Protestant Midwestern stock, no doubt. Yet amid my few childhood mementos is that Jeremy Fisher.
This prized Christmas memory inspired me to collect other tales of touching holiday gifts received. After all, many of us—myself included—can feel overwhelmed and disheartened by the commercialism that the winter holidays can inspire. But the true spirit of holiday giving, I found, is alive and well in the memories of many.
A Carrie (Bradshaw) Christmas
Megan Finnerty, a Phoenix journalist and fellow descendant of practical Midwesterners, also cherishes one especially frivolous gift.
“My mom was a National Park ranger, and my dad is a manager in the steel industry,” Finnerty says. “Their gifts are always practical and carefully considered but rarely reflect my flair for glamour.”
Then, a few Christmases ago, Finnerty had opened her Yankee Candle Housewarmer and a baby blue monogrammed terrycloth robe from L.L.Bean when her mom pulled out one more gift: Sex and the City: The Complete Series.
“I was so thrilled,” Finnerty says. “They had never given a gift to me that felt so personal, that felt so much like they recognized me for all my shallow vanity, craven gossipy nature or my absurd fashion sense.” It was affirmation. “Now when I laugh particularly hard at one of Samantha’s ‘pubic’ puns or one of Carrie’s faux naïve musings on the futility of dating, I think about how much my parents love me.”
Diamond in the rough
But for some, practical can be touching. Forty years ago, Joyce Zborower, 71, was in the process of setting up a garage studio for her gemstone cutting and jewelry design business. This included the purchase of several machines that required electricity. “My beautiful husband secretly ordered two four-outlet electric boxes to be made for the studio,” says Zborower, a Tempe, Arizona, author who lost her husband in 2008. “The fact that he bought something he knew I wanted and needed—and not just something girlie—was so touching. It was absolutely the best gift ever.”
When Elaine Stephen was 12, she asked her mother for a life-size baby doll for Christmas. Stephen later overheard her mother relay the request to her dad, who replied that the girl was too old for a doll. “I felt crushed,” says Stephen, owner of InspirationalSympathyGifts.com, based in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania. Yet on Christmas morning, Stephen found such a doll with blond hair, wearing peach-color floral pajamas. “I was so happy. That doll laid next to me in bed every night.” A few months later, Stephen’s mother passed away. “Every night, way into my teens, I hugged that doll while I said my prayers,” she says. “The doll became a symbol of my mother’s love and understanding of me.”
Apparently, dolls make meaningful gifts for adults, too. Jennifer James grew up in a family devoted to Barbie dolls. “My baby boomer sisters had Barbies, and when I came along a decade later, everyone assumed that I would play with Barbies, too,” says James, an Oklahoma City writer and mom of three. “I did love them, but then I discovered Dawn Dolls by Topper. It was heresy and total betrayal to move to Dawn, Glori, Angie and Dal.”Photo: JenX67.comThe Dawn doll by Topper
James never gave up her lust for the Barbie knock-offs, and last year, she wrote a blog post about Dawn dolls, which had long been discontinued. For her birthday in September, after reading the post, James’ mother gave her a vintage Kip, a baton-twirling Dawn doll, and the following Christmas came a Topper Dawn doll case and Connie, another majorette, all scored from eBay. James was 45 years old at the time. “I loved baton twirling as a girl,” she says. “The dolls sit on my office desk, reminding me of my young-girl dreams of marching on a field with the band twirling a fire baton.”
Betsy Smith, a New York City digital marketing executive, was 6 when she awoke on Christmas morning to a blue Schwinn bike with a floral banana seat. “The bicycle had scuffs and scratches on it, so I asked my parents if it was used,” Smith says. “My dad said it was just damage from coming down the chimney. Obviously, in hindsight, they bought it at a garage sale.” The family could have easily afforded a new bike. They lived on a golf course and had just returned from a vacation to France. But Smith, a mom whose hobby is scrounging thrift stores and garage sales for used china and flatware to resell, now considers the gift to be, “awesomely thrifty. The bicycle was still perfectly functional and adorable. I have given my kids a lot of ‘previously loved’ gifts and haven’t heard any complaints.”
Secondhand gifts can be especially meaningful if they come from the original owner. Sherry Gavanditti grew up in a poor community in Tennessee. In the second grade, the students drew names for a holiday gift exchange, and the girl from what was considered the poorest family in town drew Gavanditti’s name. “When the day came to open their gifts, Martha came over to me with something behind her back, then handed me her beloved teddy bear,” remembers Gavanditti, now a public relations specialist in Beachwood, Ohio. “It was a small, stained, ragged teddy that had obviously been around for a long time and obviously meant the world to her. She worked to pull lint and snags from it as she handed it to me.” Feeling guilty, Gavanditti offered to let Martha keep the toy, “but she insisted. I still have the teddy 45 years later,” Gavanditti says. She keeps it on her home office desk to this day.
Of course, not all gifts are material. Rick Lauber, of Edmonton, Canada, struggled to choose a gift for his aging father who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. “I finally decided to treat him to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” which had always been one of his favorites,” says Lauber, author of Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians. “I had no idea how Dad would respond.” As soon as the music began, the older man started smiling and didn’t stop until the concert ended. “Even though Dad had long since forgotten many people, places and points in time, I was delighted to see his positive reaction, and that he still connected with the music—even on a short-term basis. That was one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever received.”