“A New Old Christmas Story,” Dec. 17, 2019

This is a Christmas story. I’ve told parts of it before. But some stories bear repeating, especially at Christmas, when old things — people and traditions and even the world — often seem new.

Like most stories, this one is woven from memories, three memories of three perfect gifts. The first gift was a bird.

When I was 6, my mother bought a fake Christmas tree. It looked like a TV antenna covered in toilet brushes. She said I could decorate it, but I knew it wouldn’t help. You can put lipstick on a pig, but still.

The day after Christmas, I went to spend a week with my grandmother on her farm. I told her about the tree and she said, “Your mama works too hard.”

The next morning, she woke me early and said, “Come see your Christmas tree.”

I looked out the window. It was snowing. And at the top of a snow-covered hemlock, there sat a single, perfect ornament: A redbird, singing its heart out, just for me.

Suddenly, it was Christmas.

The second gift was a promise from my mother. When I was 10, my family fell on hard times (harder than our usual) and Mama said Santa might be late.

“How late?” I asked.

“Maybe spring,” she said.

On Christmas Eve, some people from church brought us a food basket. My mother looked mortified, but thanked them kindly. It was our only gift that Christmas, except for a box of tangerines my stepfather put under the fake tree. At supper, when Mama served up the ham from the basket, she said this:

“Life is a bank. Sometimes we put into it. Sometimes we take out. It’s hard having to take. But remember how it feels, because one day you will do the giving.”

Suddenly, it was Christmas.

The third gift was a cassette tape. When my oldest child left for college, he took with him a boulder-size chunk of my heart.

It’s hard to let go of someone you’ve spent 18 years of your life watching over day and night. We visited him at school, he came home a few weekends, and we often talked by phone. But I missed him something fierce. I could hardly wait for him to come home for Christmas.

When he drove up out front (with a car full of laundry) I was waiting on the porch.

“Hey, Mama!”

I hugged him long and hard, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Glad you’re home,” I said.

“Glad to be here,” he nodded.

He unpacked his car, started a load of wash, ate everything in the fridge, then headed off to meet friends, promising to be back for dinner. But first he took something out of his pocket.

“Here,” he said, grinning, “I made this for you.”

I squinted at the names of two dozen songs he’d recorded on a cassette titled “Songs 4 Mom.”

It was the music I’d danced to as a teenager, and later, with him and his sister and brother when they were small — songs by James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder ….

“Where did you find these?”

“I borrowed them from guys at school and copied them on the tape. They’re all songs I know you love, plus a few new ones I think you’ll like, too.”

In that moment, I realized two things: My boy knew me well. And no matter how many miles or years might come between us, we would always be close.

Suddenly, it was Christmas.

The best gifts aren’t usually things we ask for. But they are always what we need: A redbird singing in a snow storm. A promise of hope in hard times. The assurance of being known well by someone we adore. Or a baby lying in a manger, who makes the soul feel its worth.

May this Christmas bring you your favorite gift, the one thing you need most of all, not tied up with ribbons under the tree, but wrapped in love in your heart.

And may it fill you and me and this weary old world with peace and joy and goodwill toward all.


  1. Richard Kellogg says

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful Christmas memoir with your readers. It reminds me that our earliest memories often stay with us long after we forget what happened last week. You are blessed to have been gifted with a retentive mind and such keen powers of observation. Best wishes to you and your family for a most delightful holiday season.

  2. Betty McNall says

    Merry Christmas from our home in Idaho! We should always look for the Good things we can do! Sometimes we look to hard and it’s right in front of us! You make my day with your stories as you do for many!

  3. Sue Galucki says

    Thank you for sharing the gift of words that God blessed you with; they always touch my heart…and make my eyes get teary!
    Merry Christmas!

  4. Kate Sciacca says

    Lovely. Another beautiful gift for us to unwrap. Thank you 😊

    I loaded my sleigh early yesterday morning and sped over the very icy hill to deliver gifts to the kids and grands and celebrate Caleb John’s fifth birthday. My gift was waiting when I arrived for the party… almost all the married kids (including the newlyweds), eleven of the twelve grands and a five year old bursting with excitement as each cousin gave him a homemade card and a gift. Oh my dear Lord, this old granny was overwhelmed with gratitude and joy — you are so right— it was the gift I needed at that moment. And after everyone headed home and the wrapping paper and cake crumbs were cleaned up Caleb’s mama reminded his dad and older sibs that it was time to head to Church. I had already gone, so I offered to stay home with the birthday boy and baby Charlotte…. yep…. it was a great weekend 😉

  5. Fred Hernandez says

    You know how much I love Christmas. And I am thoroughly enjoying my advent calendar for an 81-year-old woman, the widowed mother of a friend who has moved from Boston to Monterey. So far, my favorite gifts to her are a 2020 calendar of male pin-up hunks, a silver trophy proclaiming her a Gym Queen, a dazzling tiara, and a yodeling pickle. But the topper will be on Christmas Day. I asked all of her six grown kids to compile their favorite Christmas memories. I am having them put together, and she will be able to read them on Dec. 25. The funniest one comes from her son, the professional comedian, who recalls when the whole family at Mass on Christmas Eve. He says he farted loudly, then blamed it on Grandma, all all the siblings giggled while mom gave that look. Merry Christmas, my beloved friend.

    • Fred Hernandez says

      I forgot the best part. Every sibling remembered the delicious agony of having to wait huddled at the top of the stairs in their jammies before the stampede to the living room and the presents. One of my all-time favorite Christmas memories is of my Son Greg in El Portal. Every Christmas Eve at midnight, he would ride his bike down the hill through town, clanging his jingle bells all the way, in the hope that some kid was awake and thought he heard Santa at midnight.

  6. So very perfectly worded and eloquently expressed. Thanks for sharing your talent with all of us.
    “Merry Christmas & Happy New Year” to you and all your family. May you be blessed! 💞

  7. Bev & Sonny says

    Sending Merry Christmas hugs and love (and, as always, grits & peas) to you and Mark, Sharon—and to your ever-growing fabulous family❣️🤗😘 And THANKS for your stories like this one that bring tears to our eyes and fresh gratitude to our hearts!!! 💞

  8. Marilyn Sue Green says

    Merry Christmas! Your words always warm my heart.

  9. Jeannette Buck says

    The best Christmases are often not what we were expecting~ Merry Christmas, Sharon and family~

  10. Patti Peters says

    Merry Christmas to you and yours Sharon…my wish for this and every year is peace…that people begin to look at others with kindness.

  11. Merry Christmas To you and your family. I’m looking forward to all your family events next year. It’s hard for me to explain how much I enjoy your family experiences after all a lot of us have had similar experiences and it brings all those memories forward. Thanks Sharon for being you and allowing us all in.

  12. Wilma Moore says

    Love this so much! Merry Christmas!

  13. Sally Merrill says

    Thank you for always sharing the memories from your heart! Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas with your family making even more memories to hold on to in the years to come!

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