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Rebecca Sicree on the Adventures of Gift-Giving in a Large Family
It was one of our more embarrassing Christmases. It started when our daughter Isabel opened her grandmother's gift: a beautiful doll of a newborn baby. It was exactly what she had wanted. It was also identical to the one from me that she had opened a minute before. Obviously, I had gotten my Christmas lists mixed up.
But I was thinking on my feet that morning.
"Oh look, Isabel!" I exclaimed, "Twins!"
Isabel's puzzled look turned to a smile.
I wasn't so lucky with Teresa, who was staring at her jewelry kit in bewilderment.
"Don't you like it?" I asked.
"Oh, it's not that," she said at last. "It's just that Marta gave this to me at my birthday party back in July. Don't you remember? You put it away right away so that John wouldn't eat the beads."
"I thought you bought it for her," my husband whispered to me.
"I thought you bought it for her," I whispered back.
"At least," he sighed, "we gave it to the right kid."
I shouldn't have been surprised that this had happened—like hobbits, we give away so many gifts in our family of twelve that we end up using a lot of recycled ones. We even have a mathom chest where we store gifts between incarnations. It's just that we do try not to give the same thing twice to the same child.
The Best Gift in the World
Parents have different ways of teaching their children that it is better to give than to receive during the Christmas season: homemade gifts, grab bags, drawing names out of a hat for gift exchanges, even "Secret Angels" who leave anonymous gifts. None of these are easy to do if you have ten children ranging from preschool to college. So Jolly Old Saint Nicholas brings almost all the gifts at our house, and our children receive more than they give. That seems a sure recipe for producing little materialists.
And yet, somehow, my kids seem to have escaped that difficulty. I have kids who have problems coming up with Christmas lists because, they tell me, they don't need anything.
I'd like to claim that this is because of all the things I've taught them about the true meaning of Christmas and how much better it is to give than to receive. But I've been disabused of that notion. For instance, I was once reading a book to Mark, our youngest, in which a mother tells her son that his hugs and kisses are "the best gift in the world." Now Mark, at four, was by far the most affectionate of our children, so I expected him to understand the message.
"What do you think would be the best gift in world?" I asked him.
Mark didn't hesitate. "Extra eyeballs," he replied.
It takes a lot to strike a mother of ten speechless. But after a long pause, I was able to gasp, "Why in the world would you want that?"
"Because," he said, with perfect preschool logic, "if you lose one, you have another."
Any illusions I might have had that my children and I were communicating on the same wavelength vanished. But if what I've taught failed to keep them from materialism, then what worked?
Adventures from Poverty
What worked, as far as we can tell, is that we never had very much money.
This is obviously not a solution I ever wanted. Like most people, I find Matthew's Beatitudes more congenial than Luke's. When Christ says, "How blest are the poor in spirit!" rich and poor alike nod and think, yes, I could probably manage that. When he says simply, "Blest are you poor!" both the rich and the poor start to squirm. The rich are uncomfortable because they aren't poor and so aren't being blest, and the poor are uncomfortable because, if poverty is a blessing, then you can't very well ask God to relieve you of it, can you?
What poverty does, more than anything else, is to take away control. Instead of planning and ordering, you have to wait and watch for opportunities. Instead of picking and choosing exactly what you want—what size and color, make and model—you have to accept what you find and can afford. It can be a humbling experience.
But if you can accept this lack of control instead of resenting it, a very strange thing happens. Life, even Christmas shopping for ten children, becomes an adventure again. Not, of course, like the adventure of rafting the Grand Canyon or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but something more like a pilgrimage or a quest. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, "An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered." You may find an agate goblet instead of the Holy Grail—as I did—but if you have the right attitude, you can still feel a bit like a triumphant knight errant.
Second-Hand Heights & Hazards
The reason our shopping trips feel like Arthurian quests is that most of our gifts have to be second-hand. (As Christmas approaches, our favorite saints become St. Vincent de Paul and his sidekick, Good Will.) Unlike new gifts, second-hand items are all one-of-a kind. In a thrift store, you don't find, waiting for your selection, shelf after shelf of identical swings or swords or skulls—all of which my husband has brought home—you find just one. Instead of thinking of a child, then trying to find him a gift, we start by finding a gift, something interesting but slightly dented perhaps, and most of all cheap.
This is where the quest comes in. We then try to imagine which child would like it. If you can match a kid to that plastic deep-sea angler fish with snapping jaws that glows a pulsing red and blue in the dark, home it comes to hide in the mathom chest until it can squeeze into a stocking on Christmas Eve.
After a few years of this, your kids learn not to be disappointed when they don't get a gift they expected at Christmas and birthdays—because they never know what to expect. One year, Maria, our future Egyptologist, received a jackal-headed canopic jar. She was delighted, but she would never have thought to ask for one, possibly because their original use was for storing mummified stomachs.
Another year Jamie received a battery-powered set of toy gears. "Aha! Ha! Ha!" he cried, holding it over his head and doing a victory dance. "Just what I always wanted! A machine! A machine of death!"
We were glad the gift was a success, but we had no idea our six-year-old wanted to be an Evil Overlord.
Second-hand gifts have their hazards, however. Once I found a little stuffed goat for Helena's birthday. "I found it at St. Vincent de Paul's," I announced as she opened it. I was, I remember, rather proud of myself.
"But Mom," the other kids groaned in chorus, "we gave that goat to St. Vincent de Paul's!"
As I said, giving second-hand gifts can be a humbling experience. And there are worse hazards than recycled goats.
The Most Memorable Gift
My husband's most memorable gifts, for example, were alive. To his eternal credit, he called from our local insect museum and asked my permission before he brought home these particular second-hand items.
Imagine two oval hair clips, one four inches long and the other half as big, both glossy and mottled black and brown. Turn them over. Now on the pale underside, where you normally have silver clasps, imagine six white, jointed legs. Add black button heads and long, backswept feelers, and you will have a good picture of our new pets.
"We will be the only kids in school," Tom exclaimed, "with giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches!"
In many ways, I confess, giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches are ideal pets. Their cage never needs to be cleaned. They eat one dog biscuit every two months. They hide all day and only come out at night.
Ours also kept the girls out of the boys' bedroom. Not, mind you, because the girls were afraid of the cockroaches—our girls may be feminine, but they are not squeamish. No, the girls stayed out of the boys' room because I told them the cockroaches had been up all night and needed to sleep, and the girls were simply more considerate of the cockroaches than of their brothers.
The Better Way Learned
But all good things come to an end. When we learned that Alec's science teacher was planning to order hissing cockroaches, the kids reluctantly agreed to give her ours instead. She was enthusiastic. "Oh, you have a male and a female," she told us when we delivered them. She looked around the hamster cage. "I'll have to put Vaseline on the sides so they don't climb up and get out through the air holes," she remarked.
How, I wanted to know, could those giant cockroaches fit through those tiny air holes?
"Oh, you may have already bred them," Alec's teacher explained. "See those little black dots down there? I think they're babies."
They were. One thousand of them, actually.
We had given them away just in time.
Sometimes it is better—really, really better—to give than to receive.
Maybe this is where my kids learned it. •
Rebecca Sicree writes from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. She attends Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College, Pennsylvania, with her husband Andrew and their ten children, who take up an entire pew.