The Best Gift Ever

For many of us, the winter holiday season brings about an almost instant association with jam packed shopping malls, long, long checkout lines, and ballooning January credit card debt. Years ago when I was a college student, I worked a retail job at a Benetton clothing store in Towson, MD. Even after I left the local area to go off to graduate school, I would come home for the holidays and spend the break working in the store. In fact, for five consecutive years (count ’em–five) I worked the double shift from opening until closing on the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday for good reason. Very good reason.

Spending the Christmas season in the retail trenches gave me a host of great war stories, several of which stick with me today, twenty years later. Like the frantic dad who brought his small daughter shopping for a present for his wife on Christmas Eve an hour before the mall was due to close. With the clock ticking, we were picking through the leavings of folded Italian sweaters when I suggested he might expedite the search by giving me some description of the target–I mean gift recipient. (Forget knowing such vitals as say, her actual size). When he only stared at me, I could see I was going to have take the lead.

“What color is her hair?” I asked in that patient but firm voice usually reserved for small children. Professionalism aside, I’d been on my feet for coming on ten solid hours sans break and young though I was, my high heel shod feet were beginning to swell.

After a moment’s hesitation, he looked me up and down and declared it was sort of like my shoulder-length chestnut brown locks. Okay, now we were getting somewhere! Then I asked, “What color are her eyes?” As it happened, I had a bunch of blue hued sweaters left in my badly dwindled inventory, and I was hoping I might have a match.

There was another pause, a l-o-n-g pause and then he looked down at his little daughter, his own dark eyes bulging, and asked, “What… what color are mommy’s eyes?”

“They’re BLUE, Daddy!” the child fairly shouted and then looked up at me with her own china blue eyes, presumably inherited from her mom. That look, I’ll never forget it. It fell somewhere between disappointment and downright disgust. I looked back at her and though I was a twenty-something and she was probably only around eight, we shared a moment of silent commiseration over the vageries of men.

But my winter retail gig didn’t end with December 25th, oh no. There followed a day even more dreaded by retail clerks everywhere than Black Friday. December 26th, otherwise known as The Day After Christmas. If the shopping days leading up to Christmas are about fantasy and infinite possibility, the days after the holiday are all about reality (and that would be cold, hard reality) and the limitations of material things to fill us up. The size 12 lady returning the size 2 sweater. The size 2 lady returning the size 12 sweater and both shocked and more than a littled miffed that the gift givers, in both cases the husband, seemed to know them so little, at least when it came to personal style.

Like Maggie in It’s A Wonderfully Sexy Life, I’m finding more and more that what I really want for Christmas or any other holiday doesn’t come inside a store box, no matter how exquisite the wrapping.

What was the best holiday gift you ever received? What was the worst? Or, if you’re so inclined to share, what is the gift for which you secretly or not so secretly yearn, the one you’ve never gotten, at least not yet?

Whatever holiday you celebrate during the winter months, I hope it’s joyous and filled with myriad reminders of the true magic of the season…