There’s a wonderful book, “The Polar Express”, about a boy on the cusp of not believing in Santa.
He’s whisked away in the middle of the night by a bullet train to the North Pole. Santa chooses him to request the first gift of Christmas. With license to choose anything his heart desires, he opts instead for a small gift, a token really. A bell from Santa’s sleigh.
Upon returning home he finds a hole in his robe has caused him to lose the bell. Sadly assuming he was just dreaming, he goes to bed. However, on Christmas morning the bell is wrapped and under the tree with a note from Santa. Thus reaffirming his teetering belief. He ends the story thirty years later as an adult. Telling us he, and anyone that truly believes, can still hear the sweet sound of the bell.
I like this story because it demonstrates the impact a small gift can have. The baby Jesus didn’t get a lot of big stuff. The gold, myrrh and frankincense had to fit in camel packs. The eight gifts of Chanukah were never ostentatious. Virginia just wanted the truth. Clara, nutcracker surgery. Santa Mouse, a piece of cheese.
I didn’t get a lot of big gifts growing up. There were a fair number of utilitarian items. New socks. Day-of-the-week underwear. Double pencil sharpener. A soap dog that grew hair. One rueful year I got a Magic Slate with a nasty note from Santa about the post war state of my room. There would always be two boxes wrapped in gold paper for my sister and me. With an attached poem. These were statement gifts. Mine was usually a Betty Crocker cook set with tins and mixes. For my sister, a Villager cardigan with grosgrain ribbon or a Ladybug nightgown. With a Ladybug stick pin.
But no parabolic skis, electric guitars, Sony PlayStations or trips to EuroDisney. My parents had neither guilt nor money. We saved for Christmas with a Christmas Club. I remember when I got my first one. You could save from $15 up, beginning April 1. Passbook and weekly wreath stickers. You were focused.
My grandmother used to make holiday fruitcakes. The kind anyone under fifty hates. About seventeen pounds each. Full of maraschino cherries, nuts, dates, raisins and black brandy. The color of dark mahogany. Scissor-curled red ribbon bow. Hallmark “to and from” sticker. She probably gave the better of two weeks to making those leaden cakes for a short list of well-loved friends. I didn’t understand this when I was a kid. But now, what I’d give for just one bite and a glimpse of that apron-clad lady covered in flour and time.
So, here’s what’s on my list this year. From my daughter Lily, a framed photo of her and her dog Marley sitting on their steps in New York City. From my husband Gordon, a wooden bowl that he turned himself. Just for me. From each of my stepchildren, a story. Written in their own cursive. About their lives. And from my old friends, a simple white card remembering our early Christmas’ … before kids and houses and the dwindling of time.
As the once-boy of “The Polar Express” remembers, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
To small gifts. Small moments. And always hearing the sweet sound of the bell.
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