The Gift – A Christmas Story

I read in a recent news report that spending at Christmas has decreased this year and that gifts chosen for family members and friends are likely to be of less value. I was actually pleased to see this, if it means a reduction in the usual frenzy of buying, particularly for children, resulting in the manufacture and sale of less plastic, much of which will end up at the local recycling centre by the end of January!

This may make me sound like the Grinch, but I’m really not. However, I do believe that we just don’t need all of the ‘stuff’ we are encouraged to buy, through TV, radio and online 24/7 advertising from October onwards. For me, these aren’t the values that we should hold dear at Christmas – not to say that I haven’t been guilty myself in past years. Much unrecyclable plastic has passed through my house. But not this year.

A few weeks ago would have been my mother’s one-hundredth birthday. She didn’t make it to that venerated age, although she did last well into her nineties. She loved Christmas, but mainly for the fun and joy of the family gathering.

That reminded me of a story that she told me, frequently, of her childhood and what Christmas was like for her family back then – so different from today.

Joan was the eldest daughter of a family of seven children from a poor household in Newport, South Wales. Her father, Paddy, worked on the Newport docks and therefore only earned money when a ship came in that could be unloaded and re-loaded by the dock laborers.

My grandmother was an enterprising woman. She had to be. Frequently, there was no money and she had to pawn her wedding ring on more than one occasion. When I asked my mother if she felt that level of poverty she said a vehement “no; you couldn’t miss what you never had”. At Christmas, there was always a chicken. Everyone was too canny to ask questions about the origin of said chicken. Paddy had a small allotment where he grew potatoes and the occasional vegetable. I suspect black-market bartering!

The idea of a Christmas present, however, simply never occurred. That is, until one Christmas in 1932, shortly after her ninth birthday, when Paddy announced to his family of then five children, on Christmas Eve, that there would be a gift for everyone the following day, as he had worked for two full weeks and there was a little money to spare.

My mother didn’t sleep that night, with the excitement and anticipation.

When she awoke the following morning, Paddy and Vic had laid out the gifts in front of the living room fire, which was blazing. No-one asked where the coal came from, either!

My mother’s gift was a small parcel wrapped up in paper – probably newspaper – and tied with string. She opened it to find a snowy white handkerchief, an orange and a single chocolate.

She first told me this story when she was approaching eighty and dementia had set in. She remembered, as if it were yesterday, the joy, the thrill, the happiness when the paper was torn off, and the items laid out before her – her first Christmas present, given and received with pure love, and I don’t believe that anything ever came close to that feeling again.

I think often of that story. The gift was simple and cheap, but for my mother it was worth more than gold. That Christmas was a memorable day – the singing, the dancing, the family games – a memory that stayed with her when the dementia had stolen almost every other memory. A white handkerchief, an orange and a single piece of chocolate. Love and joy at Christmas. Do we really need more?

Picture of Mary Jones

Mary Jones

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