I can't read the O. Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi" without wanting to shake the young wife who sells her long hair to buy her hardworking husband a platinum chain for his family heirloom watch. "Don't do it!" I rage. "That's all the money you have. You should buy him socks and underwear (and maybe some chocolate for yourself) and save the rest." Most people see that story in terms of sacrifice and unselfish love. To me, it's a fable whose moral is not to bother buying people thoughtful presents.
Christmas 1987: our 9-month-old son's first Christmas. We lived in a rented, ramshackle shed of a house a couple of miles from my in-laws. There wasn't much room for a Christmas tree, what with the pingpong table folded against the bookcases and the playpen taking up the rest of the main room, so we were in a quandary. We wanted a tree, but we worried he'd pull it over on himself.
But lo, I think the angel of the Lord came upon me. I knew exactly what to do. We bought a small, live fir tree all balled up and burlapped, brought it inside on Christmas Eve and plopped it in the playpen to protect it from grabby-hands boy. After decorating it with the few festive things we owned, we oohed and aahed over the colored lights, content with our simple solution. Christmas morning, finished with the photo ops by the tree, we undecorated it, put it in our car and drove over to my in-laws' house to see the rest of the family and present their first grandchild's first Christmas tree to them.
Obviously, I had come up with the best Christmas present ever. I was hewing closely to the adage that the next best thing to a grandchild is anything that reminds grandparents of that grandchild. Knowing that within a year and a half we'd uproot the long-legged sprout of a grandson and move far away, I was anticipating their grief and brilliantly trying to assuage it in advance with a living reminder of their first grandchild's first Christmas — the sappiest sapling there ever was. Cue the violins.
I could see it planted in the family's yard where the grandparents would nurture it, watch it grow and measure it against the growth of their grandson. We were green before green was green. We were even willing to dig the hole. And we were thoughtful as hell. I just knew that in years to come, when we would return from whatever faraway place where we'd be living, it would be so touching for our child to visit the tree and also mark its growth with his own. Perhaps he would decorate it again someday, or play around it or see it covered in snow. The layers of meaning were piled like so many presents under a tree — continuity amid change, nature and nurture, Christmases past, present and future. It's the thought that counts, right?
If I could go back in time to the young wife I was then, I'd yell at her, "Don't do it!" We pulled up and unpacked child and tree to present the latter to my father-in-law standing there in his driveway. He took one look at it and called over to his next-door neighbor — "Hey, Bob, you want this?" — even before my mother-in-law had laid eyes on it.
If he didn't like gardening, I might have understood. If it had been a large tree, I could see that the gift was presumptuous. If he were named Ebenezer, I might have expected it, but I was blindsided.
This was no forlorn Charlie Brown tree. It was an adorable miniature fir tree — OK, so it was used, but very gently used. The neighbor took it happily and planted it in his yard.
There's no sleight of hand or turn of phrase that can transform this memory into a classic tale of unselfish love, but it's still one of my favorite holiday stories. We'll never know how that tree would have fared had it been cared for and loved, since the neighbor cut it down a couple of years later, but at least my son grew to be 6-foot-4. He appreciates the socks and underwear every year ... and the sentiment.