The best gifts you don't ask for

Gwyneth B. Howard

December 24, 1990|By Gwyneth B. Howard

ST. NICHOLAS, it has always seemed to me, is the absolute saint -- giving and then getting away with it.

Every Christmas I can remember, he gave me exactly what I asked for. And I was never properly grateful, because what I picked out of the wish books and what I got were always (but not quite always) the same thing. The difference, I suppose, is that between a snow-job and reality.

But I never caught on. I once asked Santa for a doll large enough to dance with. I had seen pictures of her in a Christmas wish book: a confection of blond hair and blue ruffles, she was pictured standing with her child. The two of them, evidently ecstatic with each other's company, were caught in the midst of a turn. No one had told me there would be teeth in that doll's smile, or that really clutching her great, unyielding composition and cloth body in a metric measure would be like dancing with death itself.

The list goes on: the music box that played a song I hated immediately; the chemistry set that quickly ran out of the really interesting chemicals, the poseable stuffed animal that was mostly wire, all pose and no plush. Every Christmas wish list I ever sent to Santa Claus was filled -- but played to mixed reviews on Christmas morning.

Perhaps the real problem with St. Nicholas is that he is not a critical shopper; like the child who asks, he simply wants and gets. It is a pity that one of us was not better either at informed jTC wishing or wish fulfilling.

The best gift I ever got was the one I didn't ask for. Awake early one Christmas morning, I braved the darkness and went downstairs, and I found a book among "my" presents, "The Emerald City of Oz," by L. Frank Baum. Somehow I never got books at Christmas, probably because I never asked for them. The books, if there were any, were sent by distant aunts or godmothers with an instructive turn; books like "How to View the Solar System" or "Stories From the Bible." So this book was really different. It was a Santa Claus Initiative. And because it was, through an oversight, unwrapped, I could "open it" before anyone else came down.

And the book was different, too. It began, "The Nome King was in an angry mood and at such times he was very disagreeable. Every one kept away from him, even his Chief Steward, Kaliko." I read the book straight through on Christmas Day, ignoring my other presents. And I hated having it end. The only comfort I got was to be found in Chapter 30. "We have enough history of the Land of Oz to fill six story books, and from its quaint people and their strange adventures we have been able to learn many useful and amusing things." For the first time, the day after Christmas had the magic of the day itself because then I could go out and get my hands on another Oz book!

The chemistry set was finally flushed, the doll abandoned in disorder, the music box "got broke" and the wired spaniel disappeared when we moved to Maryland, but I still have "The Emerald City of Oz." So when the old saint finally brings you what you really need tomorrow, even if you didn't exactly order it, it does not do to treat the gift lightly.

Gwyneth B. Howard writes from Darlington.

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