We sit in a circle, thirteen of us, pulling little gifts out of stockings on Christmas morning. Every few moments, someone screams with delight about a wonderful, or wonderfully silly, present. A jar of homemade jam, an Adlai Stevenson campaign pin, a necklace of sparkling lights, a bag of Twizzlers. I get a pen made from spalted sycamore and a pair of gardening gloves. My daughter gives a photograph of her and her boyfriend to her grandmother.
We each fill a stocking for a family member, whose likes and dislikes, and sense of humor, we know well. My job is important: doing the stocking of my niece's fiancé Carl, as he becomes a member of the family. He gets some small tools and a plant, along with a batch of Captain America window stickers, with the motto "Peace and Justice".
After some breakfast, the presents start coming out from under the tree. My youngest niece Jane has been distributing for years, although this year she disdains the Santa hat (she is 25). She thinks ahead, so that we all keep opening until the presents are gone. Around the circle we go, one gift at a time, sharing the receiving and admiring the giving.
My sister-in-law Ann gives her husband a Vega Little Wonder banjo, the same model as her grandfather's banjo. He begins plucking it right away, giving us musical accompaniment all day.
Even as the younger members of the family send Twitter messages to each other and tell Siri in their IPhones what to do, more traditional gifts are exchanged. As always, there are many solid, ink-on-paper books: murder mysteries, political treatises, cookbooks, novels new and old. This year pottery is also a theme, with handmade bowls in rainbow colors circling the group.
Many "gifts" are donations to favorite causes: Doctors Without Borders, the Metropolitan Opera, Take Action Minnesota, OutFront Minnesota (promotes equality for people who are not heterosexual), Heifer International, Fisher House Foundation (provides housing for family of wounded soldiers during hospital treatment). This is a liberal family, which believes in equal treatment for everyone.
Ann gives her sisters and mother a book entitled "Loving Someone Who Has Dementia" to help them all deal with their father and husband, who can no longer participate in Christmas.
I get a chain saw from Liz, my wife. I don't have a truck or a riding mower, but now I own my first chain saw. I can go outside, start a gas engine, cut big things down, and make a lot of noise. I give her an antique mixing bowl. She doesn't have to do the cooking because she's a woman, while I do the manly things. But we are very happy with our gifts.
At the end of the day, we light Hanukkah candles and sing the Hebrew blessing, just as it has been sung for centuries.
There are lots of presents, certainly more than necessary, probably more than we should have bought or received. All of us have good jobs and enough money to indulge ourselves and each other. That makes us lucky this year, and any year. Lucky to have enough, lucky to be healthy, lucky to have each other every day to rely upon. The things are nice and we will wear them and read them and use them in memory of this day of family togetherness. Eventually they will break or wear out, be put in a closet or handed down to another generation. The love will be there year after year, encompassing new family members, mourning those who have left us, keeping us together.
Our traditions fit us well, even as they keep changing to fit an evolving family. We gave up the tomato aspic and chipped beef on toast. Most meals are now vegetarian. I look forward to our family Christmas all year, seeking gifts for each relative when I travel, planning with my children what to give to my wife, anticipating sitting in a circle with people I love.
Every family celebrates this holiday season in a different way. I hope that your celebration, whatever your traditions, was joyous and loving. If we respect each other's very different customs while celebrating our own, and spread the love beyond our small circle of family, perhaps the spirit of the season, which is not restricted to one religious observance, but is about universal love and charity, will spread beyond this one day.
Captain America and I wish everyone peace and justice, the greatest gifts of all.
December 25, 2011