What I Got For Christmas

Christmas Palm by Joe Parks at Flickr

A California Christmas

It only struck me after the fact, (just in time for a few New Year’s resolutions…) but Santa’s fundamental question is a serious one: “What do you want for Christmas?” In the hurried callousness of our daily lives we fail to appreciate its substance; we presume it’s all about nick-nacks and toys or the many other things we already have and don’t need. But if we remove the distracting clause – ‘for Christmas’ – and really listen to the question – “What do you want?” – we realize that this is no reindeer game.

I brought this up recently with a couple friends over dinner. Their first response was to look puzzled. “Santa’s question?” one asked, “Have you been naughty or nice?”

“No, not that question,” I replied. “His other question. What do you want?

Another friend at the table chimed in: “Santa already knows the answer to the first question,” she said. “He’s made a list and checked it twice.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said. “He already knows who we are and how we’ve been. But every year he asks us the same question: ‘What do you want?’ We think it’s about being naughty or nice, but it might be about asking for what you most desire, what you really need. No matter how naughty or nice you’ve been it’s about asking for and accepting a real gift.”

Jesus was fond of this ‘what do you want’ question (What are you looking for? he would ask, What would you like me to do for you?) but somehow we’ve grown afraid of it. We’ve been taught to fear our deepest desires. Or, even worse, we’ve confused our superficial wants for real needs. But every close friend or saint I’ve ever known, Saint Nick among them, has asked a similar question: What do you really want?

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One of the perks of growing up in Los Angeles is that I can’t remember a Christmas that wasn’t blue-skied and sunny. Santa Claus would come around my neighborhood on Christmas morning atop a fire truck throwing bags of peanuts and candy to the bare-footed children who lined the sidewalks. This was an opportunity, having just torn open the gifts under the tree inside our own houses, to hurry out into the street and compare notes with our best friends. As we heard Santa’s siren winding its way through the neighborhood we had some time to consult with our peers: “So, what’d you get? Was it what you asked for?“

These days I don’t run out into the streets barefoot. My friends now live all over the world, some in places far less blue-skied and sunny. And gifts? Well, many in my life have grown fatigued with gift-giving rituals, agreeing that most people don’t actually want (or need) more stuff added to their collection of things.

Commercialized as it may be, I can’t get over the fact that our popular ‘holiday season’ stretches between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As conflicted as we may be about them, the fact is that these holy-days continue to stretch us between gratitude (giving thanks) and generosity (giving gifts). All things considered, this is not a bad place to live. But I’m deeply aware that we also live between two questions: “What do you want?” and “What did you get?”

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I returned to Los Angeles this Christmas for a visit that always seems too short, a span of time insufficient to spend with the people and places that I miss when I’m gone. It’s impossible to see everyone, but after a few years of this ritual I find I have a choice in how I engage the visit. I can count the missed opportunities or the too-rushed coffee dates and find myself frustrated. Or I can count the same missed opportunities and grace-filled encounters in a mounting score of gratitude. Too many friends to see? What a fine problem to have!

In a recent bout of nostalgia I found myself imagining the Christmas mornings of my childhood when my universe was hardly larger than the intersection of Guava Street and Nogal Circle. I could feel the warm sunlight on my face and the coarse asphalt beneath my bare feet as I walked out into the street. I imagined my friends standing tall with their new favorite toys. We were joyful in the sudden awareness of reasonless gift giving (because, let’s face it, even the naughty children got something on Christmas). We were too young to call it grace, but we’d smile as we turned to each other to ask, “So what did you get?” or to exclaim, “What an awesome gift!”

This year I received again the gift of family and friends. Many were so generous as to simply give the gift of themselves. Some drove a distance to see me. Most were forgiving about the lack of time I had to spend with them. All were compassionate and supportive and available to hear a portion of my own story of the previous year and to share their own. They gave me their vulnerability and their curiosity.  It’s good to see you! How’ve you been? Many began with the question everyone loves to hear: Have you lost weight? Or, the equally welcome: “You look great!” I received a personal gift again and again in the faces before me and in many voicemails and various messages, all of which said, in one way or another, I love you.

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Sometimes we look back on a year and count only the sorrows. This year there were too many.

How courageous are those who still ask the question: What do you want? How foolish are we to ignore it. Perhaps we do so in fear of answering the post-Christmas question: What did you get? Perhaps we fear being disappointed when the gift arrives or doubt that it will arrive at all. But in our fear we risk forgetting that the real gift is the friend who generously asks the question and patiently listens to our answer: What do you want? What did you get? How was your Christmas?

In the end the gift is the giver. However tacky the package, however urgent the opening, however painful the longing, however mysterious the occasion of its arrival, the gift is the giver and what a gift it is to receive.