The Spirit of the Season

cover story

Three heartwarming tales that demonstrate unexpected gifts may be the ultimate holiday treasure.

Ordinary Magic

By James Michener

From Reader’s Digest, December 1967

When I was nine years old and living in Doylestown, Penn., I used to mow the lawn of Mrs. Long, an elderly woman who lived across from the Presbyterian church. She paid me very little for the chore, as she didn’t have much money. But she did promise me: “When Christmas comes, I shall have a present for you.”

I spent much time wondering what it would be. The boys I played with had baseball gloves, bicycles and ice skates, and I was so eager to acquire any one of these that I convinced myself my benefactor intended to choose from among them.

It would hardly be a baseball glove, I reasoned with myself. A woman like Mrs. Long wouldn’t know much about baseball. Since she was frail, I also ruled out the bicycle—how could she handle such a contraption?

On my last Saturday at work, Mrs. Long said, “Now remember, because you’ve been a good boy all summer, at Christmas I’ll have a present waiting. You come to the door and collect it.” These words clinched it. Since she was going to have the present in her house, and since she herself would be handling it, unquestionably she was giving me a pair of ice skates.

I became so convinced of this that I could imagine myself on the skates. As the cold days of November arrived and the ponds began to freeze over, I decided to try my luck on the slick surface that would be sustaining me and my skates through the winter.

“Get away from that ice!” a man shouted. “It’s not strong enough yet.” But soon it would be.

As Christmas approached, I struggled to restrain myself from reporting to Mrs. Long and demanding my present. Our family agreed that December 1st was too early for me to do this. “She may not have it wrapped yet,” someone argued, and this made sense.

On the 21st of December, a serious cold snap froze all the ponds, so the boys who already had skates were able to use them. My longing to possess mine, even though I could not open the package for a few days, became overpowering. On December 22nd, I could no longer wait. I marched down the street, presented myself at the door of the house where I had tended to the lawn all summer, and said, “I’ve come for my present, Mrs. Long.”

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, leading me into her parlour. She sat me in a chair and disappeared to another room. In a moment, she stood before me holding a package, which under no conceivable circumstances could hold a baseball glove or a bicycle or even a pair of skates. I was painfully disappointed but did not show it, because during the week, my family had warned repeatedly, “Whatever she has for you, take it graciously and say thank you.”

What she had was a n ordinary parcel about 20-odd centimetres wide, 30 centimetres long and less than a centimetre thick. As Mrs. Long held it in her hands, curiosity replaced my initial disappointment, and when I lifted it from her, the extreme lightness of the gift captivated me. It weighed almost nothing.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You’ll see on Christmas Day.”

I shook it. Nothing rattled, but I thought I did catch a sound of some sort—a quiet, muffled noise that was somehow familiar but unidentifiable. “What is it?” I asked again.

“A kind of magic,” Mrs. Long said, and that was all.

Her words were enough to set my mind dancing with new possibilities, and by the time I reached home, I had convinced myself that I held some great wonder. “She gave me a magician’s set. I’ll turn pitchers of milk into rabbits.”

How long the passage to Christmas was! There were other presents of normal dimension and weight, but Mrs. Long’s box dominated all, for it had to do with magic.

On Christmas morning, before the sun was up, I had the parcel on my knees, tearing at the reused coloured string that bound it. Soon the wrapping paper was off, and in my lap lay a flat box with its top hinged about halfway down.

With great excitement, I opened the hinged lid to find inside a shimmering pile of 10 flimsy sheets of black paper, each labelled in iridescent letters, “Carbon Paper Regal Premium.” Of the four words I knew only the second, and what it signified in this context I could not guess.

“Is it magic?” I asked. Aunt Laura, who taught school, had the presence of mind to say, “It really is!” She took two pieces of white paper, placed one of the black sheets from the box between them and, with a hard pencil, wrote my name on the upper sheet. Then, removing it and the Carbon Paper Regal Premium, she handed me the second sheet, which her pencil had in no way touched.

There was my name! It was clean, very dark, well-formed and as beautiful as Christmas Day itself.

I was enthralled. This was indeed magic of the greatest dimension. That a pencil could write on one piece of paper and mysteriously record on another was a miracle so gratifying to my childish mind. In that one moment I understood as much about printing and the duplication of words and the fundamental mystery of disseminating ideas as I have learned in the remaining half-century of my life.

I wrote and wrote, using up whole tablets until I had ground off the last shred of blackness from the 10 sheets of carbon paper. It was the most enchanting present a boy like me could have had, infinitely more significant than a baseball glove or a pair of skates. It was exactly the present I needed, and it reached me at precisely the Christmas when I was best able to appreciate it.

I have received some pretty thundering Christmas gifts since then but none that ever came close to the magnificence of this one. The average present gratifies a temporary yearning, as the ice skates would have done; the great present illuminates all the years of life that remain.

It was not until some years later that I realized that the 10 sheets of Carbon Paper Regal Premium that Mrs. Long gave me had cost her nothing. She had used them for her purposes and would normally have thrown them away, except that she had the ingenuity to guess that a boy might profit from a present totally outside the realm of his ordinary experience.

I hope this year some boys and girls will receive, from thoughtful adults who really love them, gifts that will jolt them out of all they have known until now. It is such gifts and such experiences—usually costing little or nothing—that transform a life and lend it an impetus that may continue for decades.

Special Delivery

BY Jane Tice

From The Vinyl Café

In 1984, when she was 26, one of my three sisters, Elizabeth, followed family tradition and took to the road. Having covered most of Europe on a previous adventure, she and a friend headed for India, the first stop on a year-long trip that was to end in England. We’d all lived in England at one point and were in some ways still English to the core—never more so than during the holidays. Christmas in our house was mincemeat pies, fruitcakes of all different weights and colours and, of course, plum pudding, hot and slathered in brandy butter.

My mother, who lived with me in Victoria, B.C., always began her preparations in early fall, never deviating from the tried-and-true recipes. That year, as a special surprise, Mum decided to make an extra pudding and mail it to Bombay (now Mumbai), where Elizabeth thought she would be for the holidays.

Before email and Facebook, the only way longed-for news of home could find you was if you left forwarding addresses. Phone calls were for emergencies.

The pudding mix was prepared as always, though to ward off tropical bugs, my mother mixed in a triple dose of brandy. She also used extra wrapping. She doubled the cheesecloth and she doubled the tinfoil. She placed the cake in a sturdy box, wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with string and carefully printed the addresses: a return one to Victoria and an outward-bound one for India. Into the mail it went, with crossed fingers and a stunning amount of postage.

Elizabeth didn’t get it. Rude words were muttered that Christmas about the efficiency of post offices everywhere. Evil thoughts slipped in of someone in a dead-letter office enjoying a wayward Christmas treat. The new year came, Elizabeth returned from her travels, and the pudding was forgotten.

Then, around November—almost a year later—I looked out the front window to see my mother, a package in her hand, laughing her way up the driveway. The outside wrapper was clean. Two addresses. My mother’s here in Victoria and her sister’s—my beloved aunt Jo’s—in England. Inside was a wonder. The box with the Christmas pudding had followed my sister for a year, every forwarding address clearly written, every missed address carefully crossed out. New Delhi, Kathmandu, Christchurch, Sydney, Darwin, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, Fiji, Honolulu and more, until it had reached England with not an inch of space left.

My aunt, intrigued, had rewrapped it and sent it once more on its way, new postage attached. The pudding, though completely desiccated, was still in one piece.

My mother, firmly in the generation of waste-not-want-not, tucked the pudding into the cupboard. Christmas was coming around again. And sure enough, on the 25th, she steamed it for an extra-long time, both to rehydrate it and to dispatch anything untoward that might have survived the desiccation. Then she served it, with great flair and fully aflame, to a very skeptical table. It was delicious.

© 2012 by Jane Tice. “Pudding in the Post,” The Vinyl Café Story Exchange (December 22, 2012).

Canned Good

By David Wilson

From The United Church Observer

My family moved a lot when I was young. No matter the city, no matter the house, there was always one constant: the can. It was just that—a tin can into which we flung loose change after running to the corner store and from which we paid the paper boy. My mother used it for more than six decades.

The can was such a fixture in the various places we lived that no one ever gave it a second thought. It was just there. I’d forgotten about it until December 2010, when the subject of the can came up as my mother reminisced about Christmases past. I learned that the can was more than a place to dump pocket change. It held the story of how my parents spent their first Christmas together.

They were married in September 1950 and lived in Galt, a small industrial city in southwestern Ontario, where my father worked as a hardware store clerk and my mother was a stenographer in the office of a factory that made precision lathes for heavy industries. They earned very little but were diligently putting aside money to buy their first home. The can, with its slotted lid and green lettering advertising a long-forgotten paint company, was part of their savings plan.

Despite their modest means, my parents were excited about their first Christmas. My father’s mother, who was prone to mood swings, was less so. She told my father she wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas that year and that the newlyweds could have her tree ornaments.

A couple of days before Christmas, my parents brought home a little ever reen in their 1929 Durant. Late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, my father went over to my grandmother’s place to pick up the ornaments she had promised. He arrived to discover she’d decided to set up and decorate a tree after all.

My father had a stubborn streak. He left his mother’s house more determined than ever that their first Christmas tree would have decorations. It was getting late, but Woolworth’s was still open. Only one problem: he was flat broke. He went home and told my mother what had happened. They looked at each other. They looked at the can. My father reached for a can opener.

My parents eventually bought that first house, and over the years they went on to buy several more. The can, minus its lid, followed them everywhere they went. So did the glass ornaments they bought that first meagre Christmas. Each year, my mother carefully removed them from their tissue-paper wrapping and set them out on display on a tabletop or in a decorative bowl. Some of them were still in use when she moved into a senior centre in 2015.

One of the enduring miracles of this season is that the themes of grace, mercy and love in the story of the first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago still shape holiday tales today. Maybe your family has its own special Christmas story. Maybe it’s still waiting to be told. Whatever it is, cherish it. It may be about something as ordinary as evergreens, ornaments or tin cans, but it means much more.

© 2011 by David Wilson. The United Church Observer (December 2011).

(Background Glitter) Raina+Wilson; (All Other Photos) Masterfile