Presents and Presence

As any child of the 80’s & early 90’s will tell you, there was only one day of the year that was almost as exciting as Christmas itself: and that was the day the Sears (and/or JCPenny) Christmas catalog showed up in the mailbox.

It usually arrived somewhere around October, shrink-wrapped in a protective plastic and practically glowing with the promise of a magical Christmas morning. My little sister Cathy and I would inevitably fight over who got to flip through the glossy pages full of smiling kids playing with toys first. Usually, mom would quell the bickering by insisting that we sit on the couch and look at it together. So we’d pour over what felt like hundreds of pages of the latest and greatest toys, seeing who could shout out “I WANT THAT ONE!” first, the little kid version of calling “dibs” on what we hoped Santa would bring us.

The catalog was revolutionary at the time. There was obviously no internet available to overwhelm and ultimately make us numb to the endless offerings of capitalist, corporate America. And kids toys were typically only advertised for a few hours on TV during Saturday morning cartoons.

But the Sears (and/or JCPenny – both were equally as exciting) catalog presented thousands of toy opportunities, spread out among hundreds of bright, shiny pages to our wondering little eyes.

And of course, we wanted ALL OF IT.

After the initial review, Cathy and I would take turns pouring over the catalog individually. When it was my turn, I’d sit with the catalog on one side, and a legal pad of paper and pen on the other. I’d meticulously note down what I wanted, including the page number from the catalog, certain Santa must have been in cahoots with Sears and JCPenny, thus referenced the catalog often himself. I’m not even exaggerating when I tell you that by the end of the day, I’d have a 4 or 5 page long list full of toys I wanted. from Barbie doll outfits, to Hot Wheels race tracks, to Poppels, to rock tumblers, and art kits. The possibilities were endless and I did not discriminate.

Eventually mom would take a quick peek at the list, remind me that there was absolutely no way on this great, green earth that Santa would bring me that many toys, and that I had to narrow it down to a list of maybe 10-15 “most wanted” and reasonably priced items. I didn’t know Santa’s budget, but I also didn’t ask too many questions. So I would, and eventually I’d have a one page list and letter that I would send off to Santa Claus and his elves at the North Pole.

The next few months would seemingly move as slow as molasses as I waited for Christmas day to arrive. I’d continue to pour over the catalog, dreaming of what Santa would put under the Christmas tree, and wondering if any of those toys that the smiling model kids on the glossy pages were playing with would eventually become mine.

I don’t know why things are so different today. Part of me wonders if it’s simply my perception as an adult. Part of me wonders if it’s because kids are so overexposed to the offerings of “stuff” that they just don’t care. Or maybe it’s because my kids prefer video games, and so a stuffed animal that turns into a ball and then back again offers zero thrill whatsoever. It definitely probably has to do with the fact that they have two huge blended families full of adults who endlessly spoil them (I say this with love and appreciation).

Regardless, the fact that my kids were so lackadaisical about offering up a Christmas wish list, combined with the fact that I didn’t have the financial means to put much under the tree anyway, left me lying in bed at 11 pm on Christmas eve with a few rogue tears rolling down my cheeks, feeling like a failure once again.

It was silly, of course. First of all, my kids want for nothing and they will be the first to tell you that. Hell, my youngest actually asked Santa for socks and underwear this year, because he felt it was time for some new ones, and had already received the video game equipment he wanted for his birthday. Second, I have been striving for years to adapt an “experiences over stuff” minimalist approach to our relationship with “things”, and my children know it.

But there I was, fearing that I’ve ruined Christmas in a double shot of somehow not getting my kids Sears catalog level excited, and then not being able to provide a Sears catalog level pile of presents under the tree like I always had growing up.

ALWAYS. Even when my parents were barely scraping by.

I’m struggling with the perfect segue to put here, so I’ll just say this: despite receiving some very thoughtful and much appreciated physical gifts on Christmas morning, the greatest gift I received was that of perspective. Because I was reminded through the completely natural and unplanned actions of my loved ones that the greatest Christmas gift anyone can ever give AND receive is the presence of people you love.

This Christmas I watched my oldest child jump with excitement at the opportunity to bake cookies with his Grandmother that he only gets to see once or twice a year.

I watched my kids, sister, her husband, and my mother laugh for HOURS at a never ending backyard Frisbee game, that resulted in no short of a half a dozen (or more) Frisbee rescues from either off the roof, or out of a very steep ravine. Actual ropes and rappelling equipment had to be utilized once. It was hilariously intense.

I went mountain biking with my 11 year old son, my older sister, and brother in law on the most gorgeous 75 degree December day. All of us at very different skill levels and cycling experience, all enjoying the same trail together.

I laughed until I cried over a cat-themed “pictionary” type game, where it turns out I have some sort of psychic ability to guess what others are drawing with just one or two strokes of the marker.

I watched my husband sit quietly on the floor with my youngest son (his step son) and work feverishly on building a mouse-trap (the game)-esque gumball machine. I had to call them to dinner three times to pry them away.

I also learned that my husband has some mad-airball skills when it comes to basketball, and saw my teenager smile more in their 45 minute one on one game than I have seen him smile the entire month of December.

I hugged my mom, a lot. I shared some deep conversations with the very strong women in my family over some late night glasses of wine. I explored the forest with my oldest, and smiled with a feeling of pride as he told me how happy being outdoors makes him. I simultaneously cried tears of grief while laughing with joy as we toasted my late father, with Black Russian cocktails in our hands and Bob River’s “The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen” playing on Alexa. My father would have laughed and shaken his head with a mix of pride and “you people are crazy” if he could have seen it.

And I realized that the tears I shed into my pillow on Christmas eve were unnecessary.

Because you see, the greatest gift of all could never be found in or bought from the pages of the Sears Christmas catalog. Or at the mall, or in your online Amazon cart, or in the aisles of Target. While it’s seemingly cliche and you’ve likely heard it before, I will reiterate what I know to be 100% true: the gift of being present with the people you love is the best Christmas present you can give or receive. And if you have people in your life that you love – and people who love you in return – then you are wealthy beyond measure.

As for me? It turns out I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams.

About Heather

Hi. I'm Heather. Exercise physiologist by day, adventure seeker...also by day, and sometimes night. I like: mountains, running long distances, rabbits, sleeping in tents, poking at campfires with a stick, and Gordon Lightfoot. I dislike: peanut butter, bent tent poles, sitting still for too long, and writing "about me" sections.