I was delighted to receive a Christmas memory in response to the request in my last column. It's a lovely story from Liz Hunt of Rockland:
“The year before my mother died, her sister-in-law sent her a lovely cotton Christmas sweater. After Mother died in mid-December of 1995, I decided the sweater was too nice to give away, so I wore it that Christmas.
"When she saw it, my daughter said, 'I remember that sweater. Grandma wore it last summer when she went to Oregon to visit Aunt Betty.' I replied, 'Don’t be silly. Mother would not be wearing a Christmas sweater in August.' A few weeks later I discovered a photo of Mother and Aunt Betty, and Mother was wearing the Christmas sweater in August! I never wear my mother’s sweater in August, but every December I wear it with fond memories.”
This story makes me think of how clothing can connect us to those we love, whether it's a special gift or something a loved one has worn. I have a sweater vest my mother knitted for my grandmother in beautiful lavender heather wool. I love wearing it, both for itself and because it makes me think of both of these loved women, now both gone.
Liz's story also reminds me of how we don't always know even those we are closest to as well as we think we do, and the surprise it can be to learn something new about them, even when they're no longer with us.
But perhaps the strongest impression I get from the story is the importance of family and how the holidays can evoke our memories of family members, even years after they have died.
I always think of my mother's mother (the one for whom the vest was knitted) around this time of year, because she died exactly a week before Christmas in 1985. Grandma was strong, kind, generous in a quiet way. I remember sitting in my parents' living room at Christmas 25 years ago and sharing stories about what she had meant to us.
Very few of our treasured Christmas memories have to do with gifts themselves; it is the giver we remember, and the way the gift connects us to them. It turns out that it really is the thought that counts — whether the giver has taken the trouble to find something that is uniquely meaningful and appropriate for the recipient.
Sometimes, of course, it's the very inappropriateness of a gift that makes it memorable: I recall receiving a little girl's broom and carpet sweeper set meant for a 5-year-old from a relative who didn't know me very well when I was 9 or 10 — and a tomboy, to boot. Another year, my brother Dave, who was 5 or 6 at the time, gave my other brother, Peter, then 12 or 13, some plastic soldiers for Christmas. It was hilariously clear that Dave's gift was something he wanted for himself.
I still remember my all-time favorite childhood Christmas present: a Daisy Ricochet Rifle, sent when I was around 11 by an aunt who knew exactly who I was. I loved that gun, mostly because of the way it validated my sense of myself at the time. My mother would never have given me such a thing; it didn't fit with her image of what a girl should be.
I think the specialness, the "magic" of Christmas, is in the acts of love we perform — like my aunt's gift — that say, “I believe in you. You are special. You are important to me.” When you strip away the theological language, that's what the birth of Christ is about, too: that God loved Creation so much he came, in the person of Jesus, not just to tell us, but to show us his love, and to lead us to unfathomable joy.
I hope that you create some wonderful memories this Christmas, and that you receive the peace and joy of God, now and through all your long journey home.