My nuclear families have always been small. These days my family consists of myself and my daughter, as her mother and I divorced long ago. My daughter now lives across the country, so I am a rather solitary member of the family.
The family I grew up with was a typical late 20th century family, Mom, Dad, sister and I. My Dad’s family was a bit larger having four children under their parents’ roof. My Mom’s family was much larger, with nine children filling the home of her parents.
Christmas time brings families together. My daughter will be flying in for several days. She and I will drive upstate to visit for a day with my Dad and my sister and her two children. I am sure in my parents’ homes similar events took place, with uncles or aunts, grandparents and others gathering together around someone’s tree to share the warmth of the Yuletide season.
While my big Christmas gathering will number six, I am sure in my Dad’s home, as they started with six, their gatherings probably numbered twelve or more. Likewise, in my Mom’s home, as they started with eleven, grand Yuletide celebrations may have numbered close to twenty on rare occasions. What a warm and buzzing place such a home must be.
Despite the size of the extended family, the family core is usually the rule for Christmas Day. While Mom’s holiday spreads may have been huge, Christmas morning was probably reserved for the eleven alone. Similarly Dad’s family reunions may have numbered well into the teens, still that special day was most likely held to the six that lived in the house. That was the case with me. Christmas Day was the four of us, and now with my own family Christmas Day will be just the two of us.
The numbers do not matter. The day is about the family and our love for them. The season is about the greater number and the greater love for them all and our well wishes for everyone.
Through those well wishes, we send gifts. Gift giving is an art. My parents were excellent gift givers, always surprising me and my sister with things we did not know about, yet we heartily enjoyed. The trick is to know the receiver and to consider them, not to think about what you would like to get them. To think about what they would like to receive, even if you really would rather not give it.
The difficulty becomes those extended members of the family. People you have fond wishes for and you may know of, but that you may not know so well. My Dad’s brother and sisters always sent Christmas gifts to me and my sister, even though we had met them only once or twice. Even in my adult years they have sent the most wonderful Christmas cards.
During my teen and early adult years, one of my Dad’s sisters, Phyllis, would knit absolutely wonderful sweaters and send them as gifts. I enjoyed her sweaters and have several of them to this day. However, Phyllis did not always send such perfect gifts.
One year when I was about twelve, I remember opening a present from Aunt Phyllis. I had no idea what it could be. Previous gifts from this wonderful woman I hardly knew had been good. Chocolates and other little toys that small boys found enjoyable. This particular year, the gift was in a rather small box, perfect for some chocolate, but much too light. I unwrapped it eagerly and opened the lid wondering what goodie would be inside.
I stared into the box with that odd feeling that we all have experienced. You want to be happy for the gift given to you. You do not want to upset your parents by expressing any degree of disappointment with a gift from your Dad’s sibling. But at the same time, the present is really not to your liking at all.
Inside the box was a small red clip-on tie. It was sad enough that it was a tie, and sadder still that it was a clip on. But worst of all, it was clearly a clip on tie for a toddler or small child, not a youngster rapidly approaching his teen years.
I was dressed comfortably for that Christmas morning. I have always been fond of turtleneck shirts and happened to be wearing one at the time. As I stared at the tiny tie, my folks kept asking, “Well, what is it?” It was Christmas Day, a day of cheer. I turned around, pulled the little thing out of the box and placed the clips and knot under the fold in my turtleneck shirt, and turned back around with a smile to show my folks the gift.
We all had a good laugh. Clearly Aunt Phyllis just did not realize my age, or had gotten me mixed up with someone else in her extended family. With the larger group, little slips like that will happen. But what matters was that I was thought of, and that keeps me thinking about Aunt Phyllis year after year, and my other Christmas ties.