Publication Information: Putnam, C. L. (1992, Nov / Dec). The Gift. Christian Woman Magazine, 8(6), 62-64.
Something miraculous hangs over the world at Christmastime. I feel it every year, bundled into hat and coat for an evening of tree-hunting or caroling with friends. I hear it in the familiar strains of “Silent Night” and see it in the faces of little children gazing wistfully into bright store windows.
As I watch the reflections of toy soldiers and dolls in their eyes, I am always reminded of one long ago Christmas and of a little girl who gave another a very special gift, a gift that could only have come straight from the heart.
I was 7 years old that year, a shy, scrawny, hand-me-down child in a second grade Sunday School classroom. I shared a table with Winnie, who had matted hair, wore too-small dresses and wiped her runny nose on the sleeve of her sweater.
Our table was in a corner in the back. The two of us rarely met each other’s eyes. I thought I saw tears fall on Winnie’s chubby hands once, but I never said a word. I already knew more loneliness than I could bear. Was it only inches, or was it worlds that separated us from the gaily-dressed children about us?
We sat silently in class, week after endless week, invisible and alone. Until the Christmas party.
One Sunday, as our class hummed with the activity of nine children bent on coloring mangers and wise men, Miss Anna shared the holiday plans. The party would be next Sunday afternoon at her house, just across the street from the church. Her announcement that each child should bring a present marked “boy” or “girl” froze my heart. I glanced over at Winnie. She looked worried, too, but was often absent and perhaps wouldn’t be present for the party anyway.
I knew I would be there. Mama would insist that I be with my classmates, so anxious was she that we fit into a world where she knew she didn’t. Mama, hairpins straying from the bun at her neck, her plain dress carefully pinned across her bosom, always seemed small and awkward around the beautifully dressed Mrs. Webster and her pretty daughter, Caroline. I had seen Mama watch Mrs. Webster’s face anxiously when she met her in the classroom hall. “My what a sweet little girl you have,” Mama would venture.
Mrs. Webster, not unkindly but with absence of mind, would smile and nod, then coo to Caroline, “Oh, let me see the picture you colored today. What a nice job!” Today she added, “Yes, Miss Anna, I’ll be delighted to bring some gingerbread men. Shall I bring a plate of fudge too? That’s Caroline’s favorite.”
Caroline, wedged up against her mother, looked from one pleased grown-up face to another. She, in her starched pink dress and soft bows, only made me more miserably aware that anything I brought to the Christmas party could not possibly compare with what the others would bring.
A week passed, and excitement was building in our class. After the Bible lesson, Miss Anna gathered us on the rug to sing the story about the little drummer boy, whose best and only gift to the baby Jesus was the rum-pa-pum-pum he played on his drum. “ I am a poor boy, too,” he sang. “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you?” I loved the answer: Mary’s nod, the ox and lamb keeping time, and most of all the smile of the tiny Savior. The loneliness of my heart melted away as I imagined looking into his face.
But then the song was ended, and class was over. The party at Miss Anna’s house was to be at two o’clock that afternoon.
I knew what Mama had bought for me to give as a gift at the party. It was a doll, a hollow, plastic, lady-doll with yellow hair, sequined dress and little plastic high heels. Mama had presented her to me the night before, and I had agreed that she was just perfect. Satisfied and proud, Mama had left her with me to wrap and tag “for a girl.”
Now, on the day of the party, I sat on my bed and stared at the doll, still in her flimsy cellophane box, her cheapness and tackiness somehow akin to my own. I knew her plastic limbs would come oft with a twist, and she would likely find a resting place tossed under a bed or at the back of a toy chest. Heaviness settled over my heart.
I started once to protest to Mama that I just couldn’t take her, but the hurt look I knew I would see in her eyes arrested me before I had even gotten to the door. Slowly I wrapped the doll in blue paper and taped the ends of the package. I secured a used green bow on top and labeled her a girl’s gift.
I took my coat and the package, lifted my chin and marched out to where Mama was cranking up the Valiant. I prayed that it wouldn’t start, please God, just this once; but after a few wheezes and rumblings, we were off.
Little girls in red velveteen and white lace giggled and pranced around Miss Anna’s living room. Mrs. Webster’s promised gingerbread boys and fudge were on the bright table, along with strawberry Kool- Aid, warm cocoa and powdered-sugar snowmen. Red streamers hung from the ceiling and doorways, a record played “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and little boys with carefully combed hair giggled and whispered behind their hands.
I had been right: Winnie was not there. Suddenly, I fell naked as I handed my coat and gift to a smiling Miss Anna. The gift went to one of two lace-covered card tables in the living room — one for the boys, one for the girls.
There was no familiar corner where I could be apart. Here I would have to join others. As I stood there awkwardly, wondering where I should sit, I heard snatches of conversation.
“I brought the cutest little music box. It’s in the red Santa paper, No, over there.”
“A mirror, combs, hair barrettes, and real fingernail polish. My sister said she wished she could keep it.”
“A paint set with drawing paper and special pencils like real artists use,” said another.
Miss Anna clapped her hands for attention and lined us up for refreshments, ladies first. After a lot of jostling, some trampled toes, and only one or two spills, we all settled down to cookies, fudge and drinks from red paper cups.
Miss Anna’s record sang out “Up on the Housetop’ while we played Pin the Tail on the Reindeer, but I could hardly play for dread of what would be next. I knew no one would choose my present, and how would I explain to Mama why I was bringing the sequined doll back home with me?
My clothes were damp from worry, and it was with sharp awareness that I suddenly heard Miss Anna announce it was time to open gifts. Everyone took their places in little squirming bunches until Miss Anna said, ‘Boys may go first this time.”
The tight circle I exploded, and I watched as the boys pushed around the table, snatching and shoving their way to the gift they had sighted from afar. Packages were shaken, rattled and squeezed, and the noisy pack finally drifted away from the table, strewing torn paper in their wake.
Proud, excited faces pored over the cars, trucks and gadgets each had received. Michael strutted happily in a real coonskin cap and leather pouch. Nathan, perched on the staircase, sailed his authentic-looking paratroopers across the bright hallway.
“Now, girls,” was all Miss Anna had to say. Five starched and ruffled girls raced to the other card table. I followed behind, not knowing quite what to do.
Amid squeals of pleasure the other girls snatched and pulled and pointed and grabbed.
Paper and ribbons flew as packages were ripped open. By the time I reached the table, only two gifts remained: mine and another one, done up richly in peppermint paper and pink ribbon. I looked up to sec Caroline’s hand on the pink and white paper, and I squeezed my eyes shut, not wanting my shame to show. But when 1 opened them again, Caroline’s large brown eyes met mine. Caroline, 7 years old, with blond curls and patent leather shoes. Caroline, with her nails painted prettily to match her Christmas dress, Caroline removing her hand from the pink package and resting it on mine, on the wrinkled blue paper with the used green bow.
“I want this one,” she said, smiling, and miraculously my present was gone. I slowly lifted the other gift in wonder. No one had seen. No one had noticed! The grown-ups were busy picking up ribbons and serving cookies; my classmates were shouting and scrambling about with their new toys.
I turned from the table clutching the package and watched from my place as Caroline carefully opened her gift and smiled. “She’s a princess!” I heard her say, and suddenly the plain, yellow-haired doll was there in her hand, there amid the happy, chattering girls, accepted, loved, played with, cared for, her plastic shoes and garish dress no longer a shame, but somehow made beautiful in the hands of a brown-eyed girl named Caroline.
The years have passed, and I no longer recall what wondrous thing was in the pink and white Christmas paper that year. I no longer remember the face of Miss Anna or what else happened that day, I doubt I would recognize the other children if I were to meet them on the street. But I do know that once upon a time, in Miss Anna’s living room, on a long ago Christmas afternoon, a quiet miracle happened, and the Christ child smiled on a little drummer girl.