Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Greatest Gift is Giving

Usually, I prefer to make a whole experience out of Christmas shopping. I rarely go with a list, preferring instead to browse through rack after rack, shelf after shelf and display after display of possibilities and letting inspiration guide me to the checkout. I always bring with me my favorite Christmas CDs and play them on full blast during the hour it takes to get from Milford to the mall I've chosen. I try to be in the spirit of the holiday, full of smiles and goodwill, generosity and joy. I don't hurry, I don't look at prices, deciding to focus not on the clock and the cost, but the look I imagine I'll receive from the face of the recipient. It makes for a better experience all round, I've found. Credit card balances be damned.

This year, though, it just doesn't feel like Christmas. That first snowfall we got about a week ago? It wasn't enough to coat the ground, leaving instead a dusting of white over otherwise brownish vegetation. And Old Man Winter didn't stick around either. Apparently, he called in sick, and the only person available to cover for him was Early Spring. It's been in the fifties every day this week. Some people may read that and think "Fifties?! That's FREEZING!" But those people would be from warm climates. I remember, living in Vegas, anything below sixty meant dusting off your winter coat and putting on your gloves. Here? Fifties is warm and means you can get away with just wearing long sleeved shirts. It meant I could go Christmas shopping without my coat.

There's something so wrong with that, not lugging a down-filled jacked through the mall. In an area like this, that, this time of year, looks like the song "Silver Bells" come to life, you come to expect a certain feeling at Christmas time. And without that snow, with only the lights strung on bare trees and wreaths on doors not preceded by snowy walks, it feels like something's missing. Like you've stepped into some parallel universe, where Christmas comes in early April.

So, yesterday, having left work early to get my shopping done, I tried as best I could to get myself into the spirit, but as the Christmas songs I so painstakingly loaded onto my iPod began to play, I knew that my heart just wasn't in it. I listened to Justin Timberlake and Corinne Bailey Rae instead, singing my way through New Jersey neighborhoods, just killing the time until I reached the mall.

Christmas music slapped me in the face, though, when I hefted open the glass door of Macy's. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" fell from overhead speakers and onto the million other people who mistakenly thought they'd avoid crowds by taking a half-day from work and shopping at two in the afternoon. I fought off that inevitable sense of dread that always takes over when I see lines snaking through departments and forged ahead, knowing that I was there for a reason and I could not leave until I had at least most, if not all, of my shopping done. I walked past a man screaming into his cell phone, "they don't have that here!" and then past a customer fighting with a cashier over a return that he wanted to make, and then past a family of two parents and two kids in side-by-side strollers, both children screaming bloody murder, and I thought I was doomed. I just don't think I have the strength to do this, I said to myself as I pushed through the chaos, my overly dramatic statement causing me to furrow my eyebrows and worry that I'd leave the mall empty-handed, as I'd done on two occasions prior.

But when gift after gift presented themselves to me, when it took little effort to find gifts easily labeled as "perfect," the panic and the pressure vanished. And, in store after store, I handed over my card with a smile, thanked sales girls and boys for their help, and wished a happy holiday to every person who asked me to sign my name on the dotted line. I made my own little holiday spirit, collecting smiles from cashiers who have surely been put through the wringer by stressed-out shoppers for days. I've worked in a mall at Christmas time - I know that it is similar to what I imagine hell to be. I thought my smiles might be a welcome reprieve from complaints and aggravated sighs. They were. It's amazing how nice people will be if you're only nice to them first; If you set the tone.

Ten stores worth of bags, a significantly lighter wallet, and cup of iced coffee in hand, I headed out of the same doors I'd entered only three hours earlier. I tossed the weighty bags into my back seat, checked people off of my list and headed into the direction where the real Christmas shopping would begin.

I don't want to give anything away, but there's something about Border's that just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Books are my favorite gift to give. What better way to say, "Hey, I'm really fond of you," than sharing your favorite words, your favorite writers, with someone? Whether it becomes a silly side-gift or the whole gift itself, books, to me, mean the most when I give them. Because choosing a book for someone takes hours. I consider the recipient's character, their sense of humor, their pastimes, their passions. Even people who aren't big readers can receive a book that, to me, is the perfect gift.

It's just so personal, giving a book. I'm saying, "I love this. I found a piece of myself in these pages, and I want to share it with you," when I give a book. I'm a big fan of writing a novel of my own on the inside cover, telling them why I picked the book, why I picked them to give it to.

My dad loves books. My whole life he's had some military book or another on his bedside table, or in the den, next to his chair, a wilted bookmark hanging over the thick pages. I've given him ties, and tools, and guns, but books are the gifts I've watched him fall a little bit in love with my whole life. He has the same reaction every time he opens one, a smile-ridden "Thaaank yooou" that falls from his mouth while he turns the book over in his hands, touching first the front, then back, cover. We make fun of his reaction, and also of how it's always a book, that his gifts are rarely surprises as he tells us all exactly which books he's missing from his collection. But later, when he corners me and tells me all about the book, how the main character developed, how the author gets too technical, how interesting it was, I know gift was right.

And my mom, for her last birthday, was given a book by me, Nora Eprhon's I Feel Bad About My Neck. Its title alone made her squeal with laughter, and she liked the book so much she passed it on to my grandmother. She told me about her favorite parts of the book, her face erupting in a smile so broad she tilted her head and covered her mouth, concealing the all-consuming laughter that was taking her over. Her voice jingled through the re-telling, her eyes tearing up with giggles and her hands clutched her stomach. You don't get that sort of reaction with earrings.

So I walked through Borders, my arms hanging down to my waist, loaded with book after book, making a pile that went from my cupped hands to my chin. My arms ached with the weight of so many gifts, but I felt good each one I was about to give, finally in the Christmas spirit.


anno said...

I know what you mean. Christmas shopping is not the same without snow on the ground, and bit of chill to carry the sharp scent of evergreen in the air.

As for Christmas shopping itself, giving a book has always seemed like one of the most intimate gifts you can give--insight into a person's soul. Sometimes I think that Christmas shopping became a chore when I first started thinking that I needed to buy something besides books (or music). They're still my favorite gifts.

Kris said...

I envy that you've had snow -- we've hardly had our first frost! (I really should not have written that, given that I will now hold myself personally responsible for the impending blizzard of '06, but anyhoo . . .)

I'm glad you see book gift giving in the way that I do. A very special and intimate choice, rather than something clicked off of Amazon in a last-ditch effort to get another check on the Christmas list.

Anonymous said...

We've had big snow out here in Michigan. Then it all melted and spring came. I'm not really in the holiday spirit (at least in terms of buying gifts and decorating). It hasn't been my thing for a while. I pretty much only buy gifts for my immediate family and that's only because I don't feel like explaining to them why Christmas just isn't my thing.

Anyways, I'd love it if someone bought me a book for a gift. I'm a voracious reader and I love literature, but no one has seemed to figure this out yet. If only I had a sister who was just like you, I'd be sure to get good gifts all the time.

Happy Holidays!