As a child I did not fully appreciate all the small acts of love that surrounded me every day. As we advance in age it is amazing how what seemed to be the trivial actions of others when we were children take on a new meaning as we look at those actions as adults.
Long before I was born, the casual exchange of a brown paper bag from my dad to my mom would come to symbolize not only the true meaning of Christmas, but the incredible love my father had for my mother.
Every family has that one person who is the embodiment of the holiday spirit. A person who embraces the holiday season with overwhelming zeal, that pulls everyone together, and who makes it their mission to remind everyone of the true nature of the season, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.”
For my family it was my mother. It was not just about gifts for my mother, it was about faith and family. My mother made every day special, but on Christmas she somehow managed to make everyone feel uniquely special in the middle of the chaos of consumerism that overwhelms many us during Christmas. Church, charity and family is what my mother made sure was part of every day during the Advent season. Standing by my mother’s side was my father, often gazing in awe, in wonderment of my mother’s energy, looking more like an innocent bystander at an accident scene, than a willing passenger.
Every family also has the realist, often mislabeled as “a Scrooge.” It is not that this person does not enjoy the holiday, but let’s just say they prefer things to be less chaotic, simpler. As he was throughout my life, the yang to my mother’s yin was my dad. If you ever heard the parody Christmas song “The 12 Pains of Christmas,” my father would be the distressed man of the house trying to get the Christmas lights to work. In fact, for the longest time I was convinced someone had recorded my dad, and just inserted his yearly rants into the song.
However, my father really did love Christmas for the same reason as my mother. No matter where we all were in the world, there would be that moment of clarity that the most precious gift at Christmas was family. Our family may have been separated by war or other life events, but Christmas morning always bound us together in spirit. No matter where I was Christmas morning, memories of a brown paper bag would linger in my mind.
There were times when gift giving in our family sounded more like the events from an O. Henry story, sacrificing a treasured possession or putting aside one’s own desire for the happiness of others. Such was the case with my father. For as much as my father appeared to be a bystander during Christmas, we would learn later in life that many of the gifts we cherished as children were due to the thoughtfulness of my dad.
Like many families, we were not rich. When my parents started out in life they struggled, and money was tight. That first Christmas together they had agreed to “keep it simple,” and exchange only one gift. They put up a small Christmas tree and decorated their Portsmouth apartment with a Nativity scene, some lights and very little else. A few days after the tree went up, my mother noticed a small paper bag under the tree. The bag had her name written in pen on the front, twisted at the top, and tied with a Christmas string. All my mother could think was, “well, we did say keep it simple.”
My parents held true to their promise and exchanged only one gift that first Christmas together. My mom handed my father a beautifully wrapped box containing winter gloves and a toboggan hat, exactly what he wanted. My mom then opened her small, plain brown paper bag and found exactly what she wanted but had not asked for, and from that first Christmas a wonderful tradition was born.
The last Christmas my parents were together, both my father and mother were ill, with my mother in a final battle with cancer. No one wanted to say it, certainly not my father, but in our hearts many in our family feared this would be our last Christmas with Mom. Sadly, the Christmas of 2009 would be the last we would spend with our parents. Both would be gone by the Christmas of 2010. One lost to cancer, the other to a broken heart.
My father asked my wife to pick up something for my mom because he was unable to go out and purchase the gift he had given her every year. For 56 years, no matter where he was, there was a small paper bag under the tree waiting for my mother. He already had the paper bag and the string, but he needed the gift. Needless to say that on Christmas morning, amongst a bounty of other gifts, sat a brown paper bag waiting for my mother.
On their last Christmas together, just as their first, my mother would open that small brown paper bag to find a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume, my mother’s favorite. For you see, long before my parents agreed on that first Christmas to “keep it simple,” my father had managed to save enough to buy my mother something she had sacrificed, one of the most expensive bottles of perfume on the market.
As I reminisce about my parents today, the image of a little brown paper bag twisted at the top and tied with a simple ribbon always brings a smile to my face, and the realization of how blessed I was to have two wonderful people in my life every day, and especially on Christmas.
Merry Christmas to you and your family and may you have many blessings in 2019.