Everyone has a favorite Christmas. Mine, without a doubt, was the year I stole each and every one of my family's Christmas presents.
We were fairly newly married, though at the time I felt like a very seasoned and wise wife. We had a one-year-old son whom I had never forgotten at the grocery store, therefore, I considered myself a terribly successful mother, as well.
Our adorable little family had earlier that year packed up our meager belongings, donated our non-operating car, and moved from the mountains of Utah to the arid deserts of Arizona. My husband was in his first year of graduate school with what felt like decades stretching out ahead of him. He was gainfully employed, if one could consider paychecks in the double digits “gainful.” We lived in a tiny apartment just below a heavy metal enthusiast whose enormous set of speakers were, apparently, only capable of playing extremely loud music, and only between the hours of midnight and five o'clock in the morning.
These things could be overlooked, though. Christmas was coming. I had always loved Christmas, but being a wife and mother had taken my devotion to a whole new level. I desperately wanted it to be perfect.
At the beginning of December that year, I packed up the little sweetie-pie and the two dozen diapers that a one-year-old requires for an hour long expedition into the vast world of retail shopping and made a trip to my own personal Mecca: the craft store. I bought a spool of discounted ribbon that I argued was close enough to green to be considered festive and the largest undecorated wreath I could afford, one that could, after the Holidays, double as a very earthy-type bracelet. Several diaper changes and a short car ride later, I unpacked my purchases and set to work.
Glue guns and I have never truly understood one another. I cannot for the life of me manage to keep my fingers safe when using one. Tears were shed, but I soldiered on. Christmas required a wreath. I hung the final product on the front door with a short piece of silver duct tape and prayed that when the bass began thumping upstairs, the vibrations would not shake my little creation loose.
With that promising beginning, I set about decorating. We had no Christmas lights to hang and probably could not have afforded the electricity, anyway. I pulled the decorations out of storage, meaning, of course, I crawled under our bed and grabbed a tiny box. Inside sat the greatest Christmas-decorating invention since tinsel: an inflatable Christmas tree. After only thirty minutes of hyperventilation, I had an entirely portable, child-proof Christmas tree complete with ornaments painted onto its plastic exterior. Things couldn't have been better.
At least, that's what I told myself. In my heart I knew the entire thing was pathetic. There was no smell of gingerbread in the air or gentle, falling snow. We did not even have an electronic, animated Santa figurine in the front yard. I wanted the perfect Christmas. Years down the road when I pulled out pictures of that holiday season, there would be no sighs of blissful remembering.
Christmas was a complete flop!
I distinctly remember dropping dramatically onto my bed after putting my son down for a nap and fighting back tears of frustration. I could live without gingerbread, could manage without snow, could somehow muscle my way past the disappointment of the missing animatronic Santa Clause. I could not, however, get past the realization that we hadn't a single dime to spend on presents. The space beneath our inflatable tree would be empty. I was failing miserably during what was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
The company my husband essentially volunteered for – the running joke we cashed twice a month didn't truly count as a salary – held its annual Holiday party two weeks before Christmas that year. We tricked some unsuspecting friends into babysitting for us and made a dash for it. Two hours away from diaper duty made me miss the little guy a whole lot less.
“An evening alone together,” my husband said as we drove off into the sunset of parental freedom, “that will be a great Christmas present.”
He knew I worried about the emptiness beneath our blow-up Christmas tree. Bless his heart, he'd declared everything imaginable a great Christmas present. I appreciated the effort, but the glaringly empty space around our tree served as a constant reminder that something vital was missing from our holiday.
I began the evening in a less-than-merry mood. The company was not a large one, but covered a remarkably wide demographic. Those like my husband and I who had learned to look upon a glass of water and a plate of air as a very sustaining meal found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the Chief Everything Officers who could probably have counted out the entirety of my husband's annual income in pocket change.
I felt remarkably disgruntled right up to the point when we were handed our ticket for the prize raffle.
“Prize raffle?” I asked my husband.
He nodded. “Apparently, it's a tradition.”
“What sort of prizes?”
He didn't have time to answer. Someone in a designer dress announced the first item. At the time DVD players were considered rather cutting edge and were the sort of electronic gadget that was drooled over. I required a napkin within moments.
I held my breath, but watched a man in a suit claim the DVD player. A weekend getaway at a local resort went to a woman in a pair of heels I would sprain my ankle just looking at. The list went on and on and on. A couple standing near us won a honey-glazed ham. I thought of Christmas dinner and wondered how hard it would be to find good, quality ham in a 99-cent TV dinner.
The final prize actually made tears come to my eyes. They were giving away a $100 gift card to a retailer I loved enough to consider family but had not visited in quite some time.
I needed that gift card. My Christmas needed that gift card.
I didn't win it.
We picked up our cranky one-year-old from the babysitter and returned home that night to the sound of blaring speakers and a conspicuously absent Holiday wreath. Someone had stolen my wreath. What kind of sick, criminal mind would do something like that?
I couldn't sleep that night. Thoughts of lost ham and my estranged relationship with my beloved retail chain kept me awake. Somewhere very near the end of our upstairs neighbor's nightly concert, I devised a most devious and wicked plan.
I would simply steal the presents for my inflatable, ridiculous, failure of a Christmas. There was no other choice. The entire season was falling apart around me and something had to be done. Though I was desperate, sharing a cell with the lowlifes who fingered my wreath did not seem like a good idea. Subtlety would be key. That and stealing things I already owned.
The next morning, after kissing my husband and feeding our son like the loving wife and responsible mother I was, I set off on my trek into the world of nefarious activities. I flipped through our closet and selected my favorite of my husband's shirts. We'd purchased it during better times, when ten dollars wasn't so hard to come by. I tucked the ill-gotten goods under an arm and attacked his sock drawer. I figured taking his shoes would draw too much attention.
Our son's belongings were far easier to pilfer. I simply pulled a couple toys from his pile and put them in storage. And, yes, that meant under the bed. This went on for the entire two weeks leading up to Christmas. I tip-toed around the apartment, snagged our more prized belongings and hid them like the hardened, Christmas-crazed criminal that I was.
I became quite adept at looking innocently curious when my husband began asking if I'd seen things, like his jeans or the salt shaker. I held off on taking his toothbrush until Christmas Eve after he'd gone to bed.
The apartment was quiet underneath the familiar thumping. I slipped from our bedroom into the living room. I took my pick of Holiday TV reruns and began a flurry of wrapping that would require two hours, an entire roll of transparent tape and all the advertisements I'd received in the mail over the previous two weeks. We couldn't even afford actual wrapping paper.
Christmas morning dawned early considering I'd been up half the night. I followed my husband into the living room and held my breath. I had no idea if my shady activities had paid off. Perhaps I'd only made things worse, more pathetic.
“Where did all these presents come from?” my husband asked.
Somehow I didn't think “I stole them” would be the best answer. I shrugged and his expression grew more suspicious.
We opened present after present. I was particularly happy to receive my hairbrush – another item I had pilfered at the last possible moment. My husband expressed relief at finally locating his black shoelaces. Our son mostly just ate the paper.
Within the first few presents a remarkable thing happened. We began talking about the items we unwrapped and how glad we really were to have them: soap, clothing, utensils. They became “real” gifts. We realized that, while we were not wealthy, we were also not truly in need.
After we had unwrapped the entire pile of stolen gifts, my husband brought me a gift from the trunk of our car. It was not wrapped, which was not surprising.
He placed in my hands the most hideous Christmas wreath I had ever seen in all my life. He had gathered up all the loose change he could get his hands on and made a trip to a nearby thrift store. In the back, beneath the more presentable Holiday decorations, he had found that bit of grotesque festivity and, knowing how upset I had been at losing the wreath I had spent my entire Holiday budget on, he'd purchased it for me. I realized, standing there with that monstrosity of a Christmas wreath, surrounded by so many blessings I had taken entirely for granted, that even without fancy, flashy presents I had just experienced a perfect Christmas.
That wreath still hangs on our door every Christmas. Every year we give each other gifts we've “stolen” from ourselves – those things we are most grateful to already have. My husband always wraps up his wedding ring. I always steal a photograph of our family.
Everyone has a favorite Christmas. Mine was an inflatable, ridiculous, crime-riddled, failure of a Christmas I will never forget.