Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

by Susan McBride

Christmas tree hand-picked by Mom.

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up (my dad worked for IBM, aka I’ve Been Moved). So every few years, we celebrated the holidays in a different place. My mom was good about keeping up traditions so that Christmas was Christmas, no matter where we lived. Sometime after Thanksgiving, she’d pillage packing boxes marked “Xmas Stuff;” and once she got going, there was no stopping her. The scent of evergreen permeated the house as she wrapped boughs of it tied with red bows up and down the banisters. Other decorations crowded table-tops, bookcases, mantles, and the piano. Mom’s mix was eclectic: an elaborate nativity set from Italy, trees made from tuna cans, sculptural metal angels, and paper-mache snowmen with painted faces. No surface remained free of holiday cheer.

But before any counting down of days ‘til Christmas could commence, we had to do two things: (1) Bake my great-grandmother’s shortbread cookies (that had at least 150 ingredients and all had to be iced in appropriate colors), and (2) Get a fresh tree. The cookie part was almost easy compared to the tree trip. Mom had to bundle up three kids in enough layers to nearly render us immobile then we’d pack into the station wagon, bound for the nearest lot. My dad would grab the first tree he saw and say, “This looks good to me!” Only my mother’s idea of “good” was a wee bit different from his. A half hour and two dozen trees later, my mother would nod and say, “This is it!” She always liked the biggest, fattest balsam that took eons for them to tie atop the car. Once home, Dad stuck the tree in a bucket and prayed the water didn’t freeze overnight. The next day, he’d stuff it into the stand and put the lights on, and Mom would spread the skirt beneath. Ta-da! Let the tree-trimming begin!

Hanging the ornaments was a huge honkin’ deal. My mother made sure the whole family was present before she put out eggnog and placed a holiday album on the stereo. While my sibs and I unearthed equal parts hand-made doo-dads and delicate glass baubles from the tissue stuffed cavities of cardboard boxes, Nat King Cole crooned of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I loved glass birds with clips for claws so I could stick them on the ends of branches, like they’d flown in and were just resting. I adored silver orbs that reflected every color in the rainbow. But one pair of ornaments remained the most special for years: a burlap man and woman my sister and I had named “Speed” and “Trixie,” after the characters in Speed Racer. Every Christmas, their ink faces rubbed off a little more and their yarn hair disappeared, but Molly and I couldn’t wait to place them on the tree next to one another so they could chat about the latest shenanigans of Spanky and Racer X.

Once the ornaments were up, it was tinsel time! We were tinsel-flinging fools back then. Despite Mom’s instructions to put it on one piece at a time—“like a dripping icicle”—we’d toss fistfuls at the higher branches and see what would stick. By the time we’d finished, our tree looked gaudier than the Vegas Strip.

We had our big family dinner on Christmas Eve (still do!). The menu forever seemed to echo our Thanksgiving meal: turkey, spiral ham, green bean casserole, corn casserole, cranberry mold, and fat black olives that my sister plucked off the garnish tray and stuck on each fingertip like a freaky manicure. After dinner, we opened one present from a far-away relative before we put on our coats to attend Christmas Eve service. I loved to warble with the choir on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and sit in silent awe as the star vocalist belted out “Ave Maria” and “Oh, Holy Night.” Once home and sleepy, we’d set out cookies and milk for Santa, glance at our empty stockings, and head up to bed. Before I nodded off, I’d listen for reindeer on the rooftop (I swear, one night, I heard them!). At the crack of dawn, I’d awaken and fling on my quilted robe as the rest of the house slowly roused. My dad would bark a reminder not to go downstairs until he had his camera ready.

While Dad played Spielberg and Mom sipped coffee, my siblings and I tore through whatever Santa had brought, usually something like Tonka trucks, games, and trains for Jimmy; stilts, a slide-making kit, and a baseball mitt for Molly; a rock tumbler, dolls, and books for me. Always books. My favorite part of Christmas, once the chaos had ended (and it was always over quickly), was curling up somewhere quiet with Nancy Drew, Black Beauty, or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Bliss!

Much about the holidays has changed since my childhood as my husband and I strive to keep life—and Christmas—simple. We don’t go big on the decorations and often opt for a pint-sized tree (less muss, less fuss). I don’t bake shortbread cookies with 150 ingredients, and I’m not much for turkey. But, as long as I have a pulse, two things will never change: the pleasure of being with family (because, yes, my mom’s still big on fresh trees and decorations!) and the joy of un-wrapping a book. Honestly, was there ever a better gift?

I’d love to know if you have a favorite gift you’ve received, long ago or recently. Was it a book, an E-Z-Bake Oven, an e-reader…or something else entirely?

Susan McBride is the author of Little Black Dress, a Target Recommended Read, and The Cougar Club, a Target Breakout Book. Visit her web site at

** This essay previously appeared elsewhere but was tweaked for its appearance today. I figure recycling is good for the environment, right? Plus, I’m on deadline and WAY behind, which makes it very hard to be clever with fresh blog posts. On top of that, I’ve got pregnancy brain like you wouldn't believe (I’m a little over 12 weeks as of this moment!)—talk about the best Christmas gift ever!


  1. Whenever we move, I get a new "First Christmas in Our New Home" ornament - we have enough of those ornaments to decorate a small tree. My favorite present was probably the Timex watch I received the Christmas after I learned to tell time.

  2. Susan, what a beautiful post (and a gorgeous Christmas tree, too!) -- I do think you've gotten the best gift of all this year ;).

    One of my favorites was an electric typewriter from my parents. Little did I know back then just how MUCH typing I'd be doing in my life...

  3. Books were always the best for me too, Susan. Though one year my brother was given a guinea pig. Oh the envy we felt...we all doted on that pig and he ate kibbles out of a dog dish. We called him "Guinea."

    who knew I'd become a writer with that start??

  4. Kathy/Bermuda, I love the idea of getting an ornament for the first Christmas in each new home! I wish we'd done that. But I think my mom managed to collect a ton of new ornaments wherever we lived. Now she keeps saying, "I have too many for the tree." I've told her to put the extra ornaments in a box and tell all the kids, "Everyone, pick your favorites and take them home with you." ;-)

    Marilyn, thanks re. the post. As for the Christmas tree, that's all Mom! She does a miraculous job with her tree every year (I don't think my dad can even help put the lights on anymore so it's really ALL her). Ah, your first typewriter! Did you rub all the letters off the keys? :-)

    A guinea pig named "Guinea" who ate kibbles out of a dog dish. And you wonder why you're a writer, Lucy??? I think Guinea needs his own mystery series! :-)

  5. Loved this blog entry. My most favorite gift of all was when my husband proposed to me on Christmas Eve (1999). I think my second favorite is a yearly tradition that started when I was a baby. Each year my parents would get my sister and I an ornament that symbolized an accomplishment of the year or something special we did. (a car ornament when we turned 16, a golf club set when I took up golfing). My husband and I have carried it over into our marriage and I look forward to it each year. :)

  6. LOVE IT!! And I will never ever forget "Speed" & "Trixie" :) My best Christmas present was making it home to see my family every year! One year in college I couldn't make it because of a bad storm in Denver. Luckily I stayed with my roommate and her family. They took some of her presents [little things like socks!] so I would have something to unwrap on xmas morning! Being around love & laughter wherever you are on Christmas is a true blessing. Can't wait to see you guys!

  7. Joelle, Ed proposed to me on Christmas Eve, too! Aw, and I think it's so cool that you and your hubby continue your parents' tradition with the ornaments. I might have to steal that idea! Thanks for stopping by and sharing! Merry Christmas to you!

    Molly, we're having a second Christmas when you get to town this year! I think I'll have your presents by then! I'm so slow this year with the deadline, the ever-growing baby belly, and now my rash (ugh! Crazy hormones!)! See you soon!

  8. Susan, I can practically smell the cookies and the pine. My favorite Christmas gift was a bicycle with a sparkly blue banana seat. I thought I'd die of excitement when I saw it.

  9. What a sweet post, Susan. Thanks for sharing such fond memories. I celebrated every Christmas, right through 22, in the same house. My memories blur together, but my sister only lives a few streets over, so if I'm in town I take a drive by at Christmas. It leaves me wondering if the people who live there now put the tree in the same place or if they make snickerdoodles you could break a tooth on... Hmm, I guess not every memory is a blur (-;

  10. Wonderful post, Susan! I always loved books and reading at Christmas. I have lots of fun memories of decorating the tree and house-lived the same house for years growing up, but we always decorated a little differently each year. Great news about your special status this Christmas--so happy for you!

  11. Oh, Karin, bikes with banana seats rocked! And the scent of cookies and pine is divine. I'm tempted to get a tree and bake cookies just to fill the house with those smells!

    Laura, have you ever wanted to knock on the door at Christmas and say, "I used to live here! Just want to make sure you're doing things right for the holidays. Got any snickerdoodles?" ;-)

    Thanks, Sara! It's a very special Christmas for us--although really hard to concentrate on writing a book! Yipes!

  12. I can't think of a standout present right now but I do have a tree story. We used to have cats all the time but after our last one died when I was pregnant with my daughter in 1999, we didn't get another one until this June. His name is Yoyo. A few days ago we put our tree up, but haven't done ornaments yet - we figured we'd ease Yoyo into it. Yesterday, I found Yoyo lounging around *in* the tree, about halfway up it, sprawled across the branches. I've seen cats do lots of things with holiday trees over the years, but I've never seen *that*!

  13. Lauren, I love it! You must take a picture and share! Yoyo sounds like an awesome cat. :-)

  14. Congrats on your pregnancy!! You just snuck that in at the end, didn't you?! So excited for you.

  15. Thanks, Brenda! It was a very happy surprise (and, needless to say, I can't concentrate worth spit!). :-)