An Original Christmas Story: The Foolish Gifts

What if Santa Claus could really bring you everything you wanted? When I was in graduate school, my friend Stan and I were both going to write stories based on that premise. Mine turned out to be something different than what we discussed, and I don’t think Stan wrote his at all. I tried to write it in a kind of blank verse poetry like Walt Whitman wrote with a lot of imagery and no rhyming words. Basically I just used line spacing to give a sense of rhythm to the story.  Anyway, here’s what I came up with. I hope you enjoy it.

The ice falls,

Making muffled sounds on a soggy earth.

The night, long now and full of cold stars,

Drifts over the world like a deep sleep.

Bonfires are lighted—they dance in the night.

People gather and they sing at my door

And I smile at their faces—young

As mine once was—

And I remember…

Christmases long past and the foolish gifts.

 

1/I ran through old streets—new to me—

And my foggy breath burned my throat with cold.

My nose—cold and numb—ran from the cold

And I rubbed it with a frosty mitten.

 

I watched boys and girls on sleds and skating on ice

And wished I knew them.

I watched friends laughing together

And brothers and sisters and cousins

And wished I knew them.

In the night, they played in a park

Beneath red, green, and blue-lighted trees.

I saw the families and wished I were with them—

And not the only son

Of a tired woman who washed and sewed

And stared at the world through empty eyes

And a father who dwelled beneath the earth

In a box since he returned—wrapped in a flag—

From Korea.

 

Then the laughing fat man,

The larger-than-life shape in red with white trim,

Black boots, and white whiskers spoke to me:

“I have a gift,” he said. “It’s special. For you.

The one thing your heart desires most.”

 

“I don’t believe in you anymore,” I said.

“And how can you know what I want?”

 

“Call it an old man’s intuition,” he said.

And he reached into a big gunny sack

And pulled out a brown, wrinkled paper bag.

I smelled the gunpowder as he passed it to me.

I opened it.

There were Roman candles striped red like peppermint sticks,

Sparklers, two-inch firecrackers, rockets with fins

And pictures of the moon and stars and Saturn on the sides

And matches.

 

“Thanks,” I said. “It is a nice gift.”

 

I found a place in the park, pushed back the ice,

And twisted a roman candle into the frozen earth.

A fuse hissed and explosions of colored fire

Rained their Christmas warmth across an icy sky.

 

And the others—the boys and girls skating, sledding,

Talking, running—

They saw my light and the wonders in the brown bag.

And I shared my rockets, my firecrackers, my sparklers,

And they learned my name.

 

As I was racing downhill on the sled of a new friend,

I saw the man in red as he stood, smiling, against icy trees.

I went to that spot later and he was gone.

 

There were no footprints.

 

2./In an age of inflation and unrest,

Men in space and children in Vietnam,

In a world that had declared God dead,

But lived in fear of nuclear hellfire,

In a time when hallucinations were higher realities

And reality was relative,

In a year when it was better to be Red than dead,

Christmas came.

 

And I walked through the campus at night,

Books beneath my arm, head weary with knowledge.

Stars burned like atomic torches in a sea of emptiness.

My feet crunched on frozen grass and wind whipped

My hair about my shoulders

And I found myself in the park.

 

The pond lay before me,

Broken sheets of ice,

Reflecting a watercolor image of dormitory lights.

And I wanted someone to love.

 

“I have a gift,” I heard someone say.

“It’s special. For you.

The one thing your heart desires most.”

 

And he was there like an image from the past—

Suit stained in soot, white beard ablow.

 

“I don’t think you can help me, man,”

I said with a smile.

 

He reached into his sack and pulled something out—

A ticket.

 

PINOCCHIO. SPECIAL CHRISTMAS SHOWING.

 

Pinocchio. Kid’s movie.

Puppets coming to life.

Crickets singing about wishing on a star.

Blue fairies.

 

Kid stuff, yes, but I love that move.

I always have.

 

“Thanks,” I said. “It is a nice gift.”

 

So I went—long hair bell bottoms,

Denim jacket with anti-war slogans—

And took my place

Behind a line of mothers and children.

 

As I stood I my embarrassment, (Thanks, Dan Fogelberg)

She was there:

Eyes wide with humor and intelligence.

“My name’s Melody,” she said.

“I’m an art student, and I love this movie.”

Until then I had never believed

In love at first sight.

 

Until then.

 

I looked across the street.

He was there beside a newsstand—smiling.

I knew—somehow—that he would not be there

When I came back.

 

3./The time for idealism and finding yourself

Passed quietly away in the night.

Jetlag, briefcases, proposals, meetings,

Reports, stock prices rising and falling,

Working late into the night, promotions—

 

My life. What had happened to ME?

 

Snow fell on the black streets of the city

And taxicabs and commuters moved on carefully.

Briefcase in hand, shirt, tie, and trench coat,

I stepped out of a mirrored palace

That reached into a sky,

Toward stars that I never looked at anymore.

 

I don’t know why I left the office party early.

 

Candled burned warmly in the windows of stores

And Christmas lights hung over the streets.

Carolers sang on the steps of a big church

And a soup kitchen ladled out steaming broth,

Gave out cups of coffee,

Wished people a merry Christmas.

 

Then I saw the man in red in the chair

And the children that came to him.

I saw the little people

Wrapped in jackets, caps, and warmups,

Their little bodies wrapped

Around the people who carried them.

 

The emptiness stabbed coldly into my heart

As I saw Christmases with only two adults—

Nice, I supposed,

The love was there—

But no Santa Claus or childish laughter or mystery.

The doors to the Christmases I remembered

Could only be opened by children—

Children we could never have.

 

I walked through the crowds and thought

About the lonely year ahead.

“I have a gift,” I heard someone say.

And my heart stopped.

 

“It’s special. For you.

The one thing your heart desires most.”

 

Was it him—the same man—

Or some trick of time?

Some failure of memory?

 

“What is it this time?” I asked.

 

The hand reached into the sack and dug around.

Slowly the gift was brought to light,

Placed into my hand.

I looked.

 

McDonald’s Gift Certificate.

A free hamburger.

 

I remembered the commercials and I laughed.

To think I had believed that this was the same man,

The man from so long ago.

The laughter faded.

I sighed, smiled sadly.

 

“It is a nice gift,” I said. “I haven’t had a hamburger in a while.

Thank you, and Merry Christmas.”

 

I sat by myself in the second-floor restaurant,

Burger, shake, and fries spread out before me.

Music played and I stared out

Frosty windows to the street.

 

And I saw her a few booths down—

Very young, very beautiful.

My eyes were drawn back to her—again and again—

Not by desire—I loved Melody too much for that—

But by her sadness.

When she saw me looking at her

For the third or fourth time,

I blurted out, “Is something wrong?”

 

The woman-child cried.

“I know what I did was wrong,

But I can’t take it back now.”

She didn’t want the tiny intruder within her,

But she couldn’t bring herself to end the waking life.

Ironic, I thought, looking at my suit, my watch—

All of the things money could buy—

This young woman had what I never could

And didn’t want the gift.

The gift. Yes.

 

I looked out the window knowing

–yes, knowing—

What I would see.

My blood froze.

I was right.

He was there smiling, waving his toy sack.

 

And a young woman’s greatest sorrow became—

For Melody and for me—our greatest gift.

 

4./The decorations spread around

And colored lights lit the night once more.

Melody was at the house with Carrie, Bill,

And the babies.

And I had to slip outside for a while.

 

Overweight and gray-haired,

I walked down the sidewalk,

Walked past houses strung with lights

And yards covered with snow.

I walked because it helped my heart

And knew that some Christmas not too distant

Would find me in darkness beneath the snow,

Not walking over it.

 

I looked at the stars again—

At the ageless face of eternity—

And wished I could know their twinkling secrets.

 

I walked into town,

My breath cloudy before me,

And passed the windows.

 

And he was there—red clothes, long, silken beard,

Sack in hand.

“Do you remember me?”

 

“It is really you?” I asked. “The one from before?”

 

“I have a gift. It’s special. For you.

The one thing your heart desires most.”

He nodded. “Yes. It’s me.”

 

“You knew, somehow, the things I wanted most

And you gave them to me.

The gifts all seemed foolish at the time,

But later on, I understood.”

 

“Yes,” he said.

 

“Do you have a gift for me now?” I asked.

“A gift that can make me live forever?”

 

He stopped.

The wind blew.

“That gift has been offered you

Month after month, year after year.

You have never accepted it because—

Like the other gifts—

You couldn’t understand.

You thought it was foolish.

But unlike those other gifts, you refused it.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Turn around.”

 

Through a hole in the fog,

I saw a cave filled with animals—

Smelled hay and manure—

And heard the cry of a child.

The fog cleared and I realized

I was looking at a plastic Nativity

In someone’s front yard.

 

My questions froze in my throat when I saw him change—

Or was it a trick of light—

Into a younger man with dark, intense eyes.

Then—old again—he walked away

And disappeared into the blowing snow.

And I understood.

 

Even as I understand now.

And with each Christmas

I look around me,

At the gifts that have been given me

And I feel the gift within,

And know my friend will return one day

With a gift that will not seem so foolish at all.

 

 

 

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