A gift for you

It's an unremarkable brown cardboard box, left over from the Volunteer Fire Department's annual fund-raising garage sale. As part of the cleanup crew, my husband Tom's job was to take the unsold items to the local dump.

"Christmas stuff," Tom shrugged.

"Pay for it and let's keep it," I said. "Maybe there's something interesting inside," I added, almost as an afterthought. We took the box home, put it on a shelf in the garage with all the other holiday things, and promptly forgot about it.

One Christmas passed, then another, and still, the box was ignored. Until last week, when I found myself looking for our collection of mismatched tree ornaments and the long, tangled strings of outdoor lights. The air was so cold I could see my breath, and my fingers had gone numb.

Maggie, a very smart friend of mine, once reminded me that winter, in nature, is a time of slowing down--a time of energy conservation and rest. Yet despite whatever pull we might feel toward the natural world and its rhythms, for most of us, winter is a time of increased activity and celebrations. All the busy-ness of the season, which despite my best efforts, always seems to take on a force and momentum of its own.

As usual, I was rushing, trying to check things off my holiday to-do list: write letters, send cards, bake fudge and cookies and bright red cherry jam. Decorate the house, put up the tree, wrap and mail gifts. Shop for Christmas dinner, make a chocolate cake, set the table and put out the holiday candles.

I opened the box.

Inside, I found ribbons saved in plastic baggies and neatly folded scraps of wrapping paper. A string of silver sleigh bells, a family of hand-knit snowmen with matching red-and-green scarves, a plastic basket trimmed with lace and filled with tiny soaps in the shape of snowflakes. A music box topped with 2 tiny ice skaters spinning around and around to "Jingle Bells." A card that read, "I love you grandma," written in a child's uneven printing. Here is a box that belonged to a woman who loved Christmas.

I wondered what had happened to her, and how she came to part with these things that seemed to be filled with so much sentiment. I searched for a name, but there was nothing. Just these few items, carefully saved, now in my possession.

And I remembered my own Christmases--the grandmothers I've loved, the cards I'd written as a child. An image of a holiday party came into my mind: My younger sister and I were wearing matching red velvet dresses and had silk ribbons in our hair. Each year, we'd sit with the cousins at the kids' table. We'd play rock-paper-scissors to decide who'd tiptoe into the dining room and sneak treats off the dessert try for all of us to share.

My grandmother's house was always lit with candles and twinkling white lights. At the end of the evening, the oldest child would read from the Bible about Mary and Joseph and a baby born in a manger ("What's a manger?" someone always asked) and the youngest would read from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, stumbling over the words that most of us already knew by heart. Once, I thought I saw Santa Claus walking up the snowy street, and I rushed into the guest bedroom and hid my head beneath a pillow.

Remembering these things filled me with tenderness. I thought of my own children, then, and the memories we are making, even when I don't realize we're making them. The gingerbread house, the plate of cookies for Santa, the stockings in a line by the wood stove. Sledding and snow angels and the holiday party at my friend Sarah's house, our kids racing around us, sneaking cookies and fudge from the buffet. All this, inside the plain cardboard box: the gift of the time we have now. The present.

Soon enough, the last party will be over; the candles pinched out and the good dishes put away for another year. Until then, I wish you your own box of holiday goodwill: keep your eyes and hearts open for cheer and love in unexpected places.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.