A Child’s Christmas

    And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
    This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria.

    And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.

    And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David,

    To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.

    And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.

    And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

    — Chapter Two, verses 1 through 7, The Gospel According to St. Luke, Douay-Rheims Version

I was 7 years old and what I wanted for Christmas was a desk. I don’t know why. I think I had it in my head that grown-up women who were glamorous had desks, and I would have gotten that impression through the movies—Rosalind Russell in the newsroom bossing Cary Grant around, Katharine Hepburn on the phone. This was the 1950s, and that’s the kind of movie they always played on “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9 in New York. They had no money for programming on Channel 9 so they repeated the same movie over and over for a week at a time. To this day I can recite whole sections of dialogue from “They Drive by Night” but that’s not important now.

Anyway, all I wanted was the desk. But I didn’t expect to get it because desks were huge and expensive and shiny and . . . well, it was unlikely. And yet that Christmas morning I ran to the tree with my sisters and over on the side was a desk. I want you to know what it looked like. It was small, maybe two feet high, and beige, and made of plywood. It had a drawer for pencils. The plywood wasn’t finished and if you rubbed against it the wrong way you’d get a splinter, but it was the most beautiful desk in human history. I was overwhelmed. I got a kitchen chair and sat at it. It was fabulous. It is my favorite Christmas moment. What followed was better.

I sat there, closed my eyes, put my hands over them, and tried to imagine the first Christmas. And I saw it. I saw it like a movie. It was a blue black night and there were people on the road and I saw the man and the woman, I saw them going from house to house and being told there was no room. Then they went to a rocky place on a little hill just beyond the houses. There were some trees and bushes and a sort of wooden shanty with hay on the floor. Then there was the cry of a child. Animals came and stared and their breath warmed the air. It was starry. Mary’s blanket was Joseph’s cloak. And I thought: It’s all true. It’s not just a story, it’s true, it really happened. This struck me like a thunderbolt.

When I wondered in later years why I had that moment—why I saw it in my mind and suddenly knew it was true—I thought it was connected to the desk. The fact that it was there seemed a miracle. The joy of receiving a happy gift and being grateful for it and excited by it opened up my mind. It cracked open my imagination and let a truth that seemed like magic in.

*   *   *

Is there a moral to this memory? What it taught me, what I remember all these years later, is that everyone likes gifts but no one is more affected by their power than children. They are susceptible to wonder. A child can look at a red toy car in the red-green glow of Christmas tree lights and imagine an entire lifetime. A child can play with a new doll and smell good things being cooked and hear sweet music and it can make that child imagine that life is good, which gives her a template for good, a category for good; it helps her know good exists. This knowledge comes in handy in life; those who do not receive it, one way or another, are sadder than those who do.

We have two more days before Christmas. Remember the soldiers and sailors, remember ma and pa, remember your friends but especially remember the kids. For some people this is difficult because they don’t really know what kids want or need or will be moved by. So here is my idea. I invite readers of this space to tell of their favorite childhood Christmas gift, and what effect it had on them. This might offer inspiration. And anyway they’re always nice stories.