This Christmas season has been especially hard for my family. Among other reasons, it is the first we’ve had since my grandmother Elsie Bogart ( on my mom’s side) passed away from cancer this past spring. There are a number of things that make it hard to have her gone this time of year. The smell of her cooking on the stove. Her calling me to tell me see watched the rebroadcast of my old college Christmas concert.
But perhaps where it gets hardest is when I look at my well loved collection of Charles Dickens novels that I received for Christmas of 1995 when I was only in 5th grade. That year Grandma and grandpa told the grandkids we could ask for only one special thing. My younger sister was obsessed with the story The Nutcracker and wanted a doll of her own, while our baby sister wanted an Bitty Baby Doll from the American Girl collection. I had wanted a copy of the book A Christmas Carol.
Christmas day came and sure enough we each got that special gift we wanted. In fact I ended up getting more then what I asked for, as it came in a collectible hard back edition that included Hard Times, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities. The collection couldn’t have been more than 10 dollars, but for a young literary enthusiast who had received a boxed set of the Narnia books from his mother the year before, and eagerly circled any works of classic literature he found in school book orders, it was worth its weight in gold.
For a number of reasons including the fact they had nine other grandchildren besides me to shop for, in the years that followed when grandma and grandpa had money to spare, they preferred to give us books, movies, CDs and other more practical gifts. For example, for the Christmas of 1998 as I would be starting High School the next year, I received my own dictionary. It seemed boring next to the gifts given to my sisters and cousins, but it was something that would be useful for writing papers for school. If not useful, then it had to be something special and significant. She and my grandpa would go on to contribute to my high school class ring, my letter jacket (academics and music), gave me the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings:Return of the King, helped complete my Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Trilogy DVD collection, and gave me money towards buying the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD for my birthday back in college.
I’ve started to understand just why they would do this. My grandma was born in 1938 and was the third of nine children that grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. She was a child during the rationing of World War II. Grandpa was the first of four children from Black Duck, a still very small town in northern Minnesota. His mother was a school teacher, and his father was a bootlegger who ran out on the family leaving my great grandmother as the sole provider. Growing up for them meant when it came to gifts they tended to be something very special or very practical. Their respective parents would have to scrimp and save to give them those gifts so they had to be something they would enjoy for a long time, not just for a day or two.
It was a wise choice. Over 20 Christmases have come and gone since that day I got my copy of Dickens, and I have read it every year since. It’s something that I’ve grown into, while my peers have long since gotten rid of many of their juvenile fiction books. More importantly, as is evidenced by my mother’s well loved boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that they gave her for her confirmation present that would go on to help reignite my teenage imagination, it’s something I can share with someone else later on.
It’s a lesson that has stayed with me when it comes to buying gifts for my niece and the children of my friends. Part of me would love to buy them toys but they have uncles and aunts clamoring for that .In an age where children read less, I opt instead to give them the gift of stories. It’s already paid off. The young son of my friend Josephine loves hearing a story book version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a bed time story and eagerly waits the next Star Wars little golden book. My niece is only one and she loves the DC Superhero girl’s board book I gave her.
Don’t get me wrong : I still love getting action figures as gifts. Heck, this year, I asked for a six inch action figure of Thor from Thor: Ragnarok for my birthday. But there is something more meaningful about a gift that can last you many years to come and can transport you to other worlds. My old professor at Bethel is fond of saying that books change you as you read them and sure enough that well loved collection of Dickens has done that.
I learned from Syndey Carton the importance of self-sacrifice .Ebenezer Scrooge taught me to hope for redemption and reconciliation for all. Those are lessons I might have missed had grand ma and grandpa just given me a toy. I hope that the stories and books I’ve shared with the young ones in my life will have the same effect. Even now, I will always be most grateful for that gift of A Christmas Carol from my grandparents.
It’s probably meant infinitely more than they ever knew. What is more, the gift, and the tradition they established help teach me a very important lesson when it comes to gift giving. It’s great to give someone something fun, but if you can also find a way to make that gift more meaningful and long lasting you’ll give them something to last them their whole life long.