I’m looking forward to Christmas day. We’ll have a loud, laugh-filled gathering of relatives of varying ages at our house. The little kids, having already experienced the thrill of Santa’s largesse at their own homes, will dive excitedly into yet more gifts from indulgent extended family members at ours. And there are few things more fun to watch than an excited, gleeful, and unabashedly materialistic child tearing through the Christmas wrapping to get to the good stuff.

But amid the raucous hubbub, I know that my thoughts will drift away to other Christmases where the presents were less plentiful, but the enthusiasm ran just as high. 

Unlike the fortunate offspring in the youngest branches of our family tree today, Christmas gifts for us weren’t the icing on the cake of a well-provided for childhood. They were our once-a-year chance at getting something we really, really, wanted—a pair of ice skates, a doll, a walkie talkie, a paint set, a baseball glove, a robot dinosaur. Those singular “major” gifts were made possible through careful planning and judicious use of a store layaway plan.

The other presents in our small stacks–curated to ensure none of us perceived that one of us had received more than another–were things we really, really needed—typically underwear, socks, pajamas or slippers, all items prone to wearing out before they made it very far on the hand-me-down train. But even those were prized for their no-previous-owner provenance.

Christmas stockings were not an add-on or an after thought for us, as they were for some of our friends. They were part of the main event because our economically challenged but imaginative mother made them so. We each had a handmade stocking adorned with our names in glitter or sequins. Each one was filled with candy, nuts and oranges, but the real fun was in the small “prizes” Mom had hunted down to include.

Our eager fingers dug deep to pull out packs of playing cards, rubber balls, handheld number-slide puzzles, barrettes and ribbons, magnifying glasses, tiny notebooks and new pencils, little plastic snow globes. Anything that caught her fancy that she thought we might have fun with. We pulled each one out, examined it, sometimes stopped to play with it, sometimes held it aloft to show and then negotiate a trade. 

Our father enjoyed the show, but it was our mother who directed Christmas morning, and stretched a very small budget into a very big production. We all knew that there were kids who got less than we did, but it took a very long time for us to realize that there were those who got more. And looking back I realize that they really didn’t.  

My own children received a much larger and more expensive range of presents that I ever received. It was great fun to watch them shout with happiness when they received not just one, but many things on their wish lists. But I doubt any longed-for gift ever gave them the jolt of joy that shot through me when I opened my favorite childhood Christmas gift.

It wasn’t very promising to look at–a large, battered, cardboard box, not even wrapped. But I can still recall the thrill I felt when I opened the flaps and saw the treasure trove inside. A boxful of books!

I loved the local library, but I longed for books I didn’t have to give back. I had three or four of my own, but I wanted more. A big collection it would take weeks to read through, and to which I could return again and again. The Christmas  I was ten years old, my mother found a way to get me my wish. She rescued dozens of old children’s books from a woman who thought no one else would want them. Mom knew she was wrong. The bindings were worn, some pages were brittle and yellowed, and the assortment had a definite musty smell, but I hadn’t yet read any of them. And they were mine to keep.

I received other gifts from my parents over the years that were more “valuable,” but I don’t remember many of them. I’ve never forgotten that box of used books. I hope, you, too, have a special gift from childhood that still evokes happy memories.

Merry Christmas.