When I was a girl, my mom and I would go to the local mall to shop for Christmas. Back then it was a full, bustling place, lights and baubles everywhere and Christmas carols echoing through the cavernous halls. After we finished buying for our lists we would walk to the middle of the mall, near Santa’s station, to the Giving Tree. This short, artificial tree bristled with cards hung by ribbons, each labeled with a child’s name. Inside the card were the child’s Christmas wishes, their sizes and color preferences, and their age.

My mom and I would go through each card, looking for the kid we were afraid would never be picked by anyone else. The oldest one, the one who still had baby fat, the one with geeky hobbies — essentially the one that most reminded us of me. We didn’t have a preference girl or boy, just a kid who was old enough to know where presents came from, or didn’t.

Then we would carefully shop, being sure to get some of the essentials on the list — new winter coat, new shoes — plus a generous supply of the fun stuff and then something they didn’t ask for, a little luxury. For girls we would buy a set of soaps and perfumes and for boys, a little gadget from Radio Shack. Often a book made its way in the pile, too.

Satisfied, we’d set the bag of unwrapped gifts, carefully folded with gift receipts, under the tree with the child’s card tied to the bundle. It was a glorious and strange feeling, to be doing something good anonymously for a stranger. I wanted Stuff as much as any other kid, but this feeling — deep and yet ephemeral — felt more important and bigger and much more adult than what I felt opening up that remote controlled truck I wanted so badly.

My mother had wordlessly taught me very important lessons on those shopping trips, and ones I try hard to remember every Christmas season. Of course, I learned the wealth of feeling earned by giving, but also the importance of treating everyone the same. We all deserve a Christmas stuffed with gifts and ringed by love; we all want this, regardless of station in life. We are all only a few steps removed from being a card on a charity’s display in the center of the mall — and wouldn’t we want the same from others?

I love that from my position behind the bookstore counter I can play Christmas elf for all my regular customers: offering suggestions, reminding them they bought that picture book last year, doling out two sentence-long reviews. Although I am heavily steeped in the material aspect of Christmas, I like to think I’m still making someone’s Christmas better by giving them the tools for imagination and escape, creativity and understanding, generosity and compassion.

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