One Mother’s Day, when I was maybe six years old, I gave my mom a ladybug I’d made out of paper as a present. It had springy legs and a carefully cut out oval for a body. I’d worked hard on it and my mom, lying in bed with her burnt toast (or whatever my dad and I had rustled up for her), was very appreciative. She marveled at its construction, spent time examining its dots, and asked how I’d achieved the paper springs I’d made for legs (as if she didn’t know). She hugged me, and thanked me, and put it carefully on her bedside table.
“Wait!” I said when the moment had passed. “I have one more thing to give you!” I ran into my room and looked around. There wasn’t actually one more thing. The ladybug was it. But, in that moment, my mother’s happiness had filled me with a deep and powerful fulfillment. I had done that. I had made my mother happy. That had made me happy. And I wanted to do it again.
I snatched up a piece of paper lying on my little desk. It must have been the discarded scrap of something I’d been cutting out because it was tiny with jagged edges. I took up a crayon and scribbled on it. There! I ran back to my mother’s room and presented her with this random piece of discarded, scribbled-eon paper. I don’t actually remember her reaction — I’m sure she thanked me again and said she’d treasure it, she’s an excellent mom — but that feeling I felt is emblazoned on my heart. The way in which, simply by giving something to someone else, I could make that someone else happy.
In my family, everyone teases me for being a stickler about Christmas traditions. Whose stockings are whose, what food is eaten when, what album we play first when it’s time to turn on the Christmas music, that sort of thing. And, while some members of my family feel that some traditions — like a long, drawn-out morning of present opening — may not be necessary now that my brother and I are adults, I continue to cling to these traditions with a passion bordering on mania.
On the surface, I do realize, it looks a bit like I am obsessed with the material side of Christmas. No! No! I stubbornly insist, there have to be lots of presents! But, while I certainly am eager to receive a few things from my Christmas list, my clinging to this particular tradition isn’t about things, it’s about feelings.
When my family and I sit down around the tree on Christmas morning something magical happens. Here we all are, gathered together in one place, with nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, except make each other happy. The outside world is not allowed to penetrate this tight-knit family circle. No cell phones may ring, no texts may be read, no news may be checked. Only this: the joy of experiencing the happiness of the people you love, and radiating your own happiness back to them.
On Christmas morning I’m still that same little girl who rushed into her room to find something else to give her mother for Mother’s Day. That feeling of contentment in knowing that I’ve made someone else happy — or even that someone else has made someone else happy — is like an almost tangible warmth that suffuses the space around the tree. A sort of invisible light, zinging back and forth across the circle of my family and making the air glow with happiness.
It isn’t that I want lots of presents, it’s that I never want that feeling to end. And I recognize that I’m incredibly lucky. That not all families make each other happy in this way, and that gift giving and receiving can be incredibly fraught. But when it isn’t — when, for example, no one minds if you actually don’t like something and want to return it and get something you like better — then the gifts become the vehicle, not the destination. That — that feeling of togetherness, selflessness, and love — is what I want for Christmas.