It’s not just toxic recipients that one has to deal with at the holiday season. Perfectionists and critical relatives add a whole ‘nother layer of angst!
My late mother-in-law was a marvelous woman in many respects. One of the things I most envied about her, though, was her artistic ability.
Never was this ability more evident than at the holiday season. A tray of gorgeous glass ornaments and greenery accenting a sideboard; a transparent vase filled with shining beads, artfully wound in graceful spirals and spilling in perfect draped arcs from the rim… Mary’s decorations were breathtaking.
Her gift wrap, too, was spectacular. Presents might all be wrapped in glossy white paper with tartan ribbons and real holly one year; the next, each would be covered in a harmonizing paper. Even the tags matched.
Now, I dearly love Christmas and am no slouch with the decorations, but I could never begin to equal Mary’s artistic flourishes. My gifts are nicely wrapped, but haphazard, and the best one might call my décor is cheerful. Mary always seemed pleased, though, with the gifts I presented her, no matter how irregularly wrapped, and praised my decorations sincerely each holiday season. I genuinely appreciated her compliments, since I was all too well aware of just how much better she did things.
This came to mind during a recent holiday season as I tried to wrap an extremely large gift. I had only one roll of giftwrap of the right width for the present, which was heavy and unwieldy. I’d had quite a bit of trouble maneuvering it onto the paper and getting the wrapping around it, but was finally working on closing the ends when the box shifted in my hands. The result was a tear across the underside of the gift wrap. It was easily enough mended with tape, but as I finished wrapping the box, I had a sudden flashback to a story told me years ago by two women at the office where I worked.
One young woman, I recalled, was both working and attending college, and couldn’t afford to travel home for Christmas. The other coworker—let’s call her Charity, because that fits–kindly invited Carol (since that seems right for Christmas) to join her family for the holiday.
Carol came gladly, armed, as a good guest, with a pie and a gift for her hostess and a bottle of wine. But she also came armed with a distinct sense of justice and a great dislike for bullies.
Because that’s what Charity’s mother was: a bully. Unendingly critical of her daughter, she found fault in every tiny flaw and found flaws where they did not even exist. Mom was one nasty ticket, and saw no reason to alter her behavior just because of the season of loving and giving.
But Mom hadn’t counted on Carol.
Arriving in a flurry of snow and smiles, Carol presented her hostess with the pie and wine. As Charity’s friend, Carol was already blacklisted, so Mom pounced. “I don’t suppose anyone,” (here looking directly at Charity) “informed you that my husband is severely diabetic,” she grumbled. “We always avoid sugary desserts at family dinners.”
“Is that so?” Carol countered coolly. “Well, I’m sorry he can’t indulge, but surely the rest of us can enjoy the pie.”
“And I, of course,” Mom continued without pausing for breath, “am a non-drinker.”
Carol smiled. “My Dad’s a non-drinker, too. But he never begrudges everyone else a little tipple at the holidays. Says his choice is no reason for the rest of us to be deprived.”
Apparently realizing that Carol was no easy target, Mom backed down until the gifts were handed ‘round. As one of those irritating people who carefully slit tape and preserve the giftwrap, she turned over her gift from Charity to carefully unwrap it and discovered, yes, a torn and mended corner.
“Really, Charity!” she berated the girl. “I can’t believe you didn’t take the time to start over and do it properly when you spoiled this gift wrap!”
Everyone was silent at Mom’s outburst, glancing with embarrassment at Carol. More than equal to the occasion, though, Carol merely smiled and handed Charity the gift she’d brought: an oddly-shaped package, covered in reams of tape barely holding together giftwrap composed of the Sunday newspaper comics and tied with a colorful shoestring. “Sorry about the way it looks, Charity,” Carol chirped. “Wrapping paper just wasn’t in my budget. But on the day when generosity of spirit rules, I know you’ll forgive me!”
I don’t recall how the rest of the story concluded: whether dinner was a delight or a disaster, or if Mom managed to choke down—or on–a piece of pie, or her own bile. But I do know that Charity and Carol remained fast friends for the rest of the time I knew them.
As I say, the whole memory came to mind as I slapped tape every which way over the gift for my kids. I sure they didn’t even notice as they tore the giftwrap in excitement from the box.
And, in the season of loving and giving, that’s just as things should be.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “Second Hand Rose”, which can be found in the Archives from July 1, 2020.