Columns » Bob Lancaster

Till it hurts

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I was a grown man and an old man before I really and truly came to believe that at Christmastime it is more blessed to give than to receive. I believe it now. I know that it’s the truth. But there were many years, many Christmases, when I only mouthed the words of the truism, when I had no clue what impelled those wee three kings of Orientar.

I was focused all those Christmases Past on the getting part of the thing. Most children are, I suppose — and overgrown children, and grabby politicians who think they’re entitled. The Wise Men came into the Christmas story to reprove us for that folly, and to show us a better way.

The message they embodied was that Christmas rewards the giver in much greater measure than it does the getter. The getter gets stuff — stuff that will rust, that moths will eat, and that thieves of one kind or another will make off with. The giver’s rewards are quieter but they last longer and they’re incorruptible.

One of them is the cleansing and liberating pleasure of the self-denial that the gift signifies, and another involves the mysterious experience that the poet Wallace Stevens called the sacrament of praise. And those aren’t the only ones.

The getter is often disappointed with the gift but the sincere giver who has given his best seldom is. The Magi brought gold and costly smellum, and had the first family been getters at heart, they probably would’ve preferred some decent grub and a room at the inn less the stink. But that first Christmas was not about acquisition. The infant getter on that occasion would, when he had outgrown the gimme to become the all-time giver king, equate that Nativity gold with the widow’s mite — and would perhaps prefer the mite.

Give till it hurts could well be said to have been his motto. It’s the thought that counts was another of his sentiments — but not without the actual property transfer, the follow-up and proof-of-purchase, gittin-r-done.

These are matters of high existential moment, and it embarrasses me that I have to draw on my own meager and uninteresting experience in trying to sort them out here in front of God and everybody. This is my 63rd Christmas. I don’t remember the number of the one when I first felt the astonishing urge to take a gander at Christmas from the spooky terra incognita of the other side — from the perspective of novice giver rather than veteran givee. But I do remember the gift, settled upon after long and arduous prepubescent deliberation at the housewares counter at Hendon’s Five and Ten-Cent Store: It was a table spoon. It wasn’t a silver spoon, or remarkable in any respect. Just a maverick piece of peasant flatware, and I can’t imagine how it lured my fancy from the snazzier bottle-openers and hatpins in the plentiful Hendon stock. Budgetary considerations prevailed probably.

I can’t imagine the thought process or the value scheme that led me to the spoon. It didn’t make sense, even by the hokey O. Henry standard that ruled then. But Mammy accepted it, bless her heart, with apparent Christmas morn appreciation and delight that were utterly persuasive. The sales job would’ve been hard work for anyone but her, but she had the power, and at the gift-opening I felt like the Grinch in that moment when the invincible spirit of Whoville conquers his villainy and melts his cold, cold heart.

I ventured more boldly into the giver realm the following Christmas when I purchased — same emporium, different department — a head scarf for my Granny Lancaster. This wasn’t what is these days called a do-rag and it wasn’t a bandana. Granny would’ve preferred the bandana, I’m sure, because she kept one at hand, in her lap usually, to wipe the snuff from the corners of her mouth after she spat on the fireplace grate, which occurred with some regularity.

Her headware of choice was a quilted-cotton all-season bonnet, which she wore to church and to keep the sun off her crown when she was out plowing. But this scarf I got her for Christmas wasn’t a bonnet or kerchief, and it was more Garbo than it was Granny, or maybe more Dorothy Lamour since the fabric of it, masquerading as silk, bore a vague turquoise Hawaiian or Tahitian pictorial theme.

Granny never got to Tahiti. She never got farther from Little Creek than Dark Corner, and I doubt she ever got farther from Dark Corner than hauling their crop to the Varner gin. Schooling I would guess not. She wouldn’t have been acquainted with the name of U.S. Grant, the president when she was born, or with that of Tchaikovsky or Mark Twain or “Ninotchka.” She lived a long life in isolation, struggle, loss and want, and she was not proud, and not bitter, and she didn’t complain.

The Garbo scarf fox paw gave me to understand that successful Christmas gift-giving wants a certain delicate artistry, a knack, and that some of us have it and some never will. Some of us will always give spoons. Glorified spoons maybe, as we grow in years and wisdom. But always inescapably spoons.

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