An old ugly lamp. That’s what was sitting on their front porch in the morning; an old ugly lamp. They were expecting some pretty decoration, or a fun game, or at least a yummy treat, but this wasn’t pretty, or fun, or yummy. It was just ugly.
The family had been looking forward to this morning for several weeks. Several years ago the families in the neighborhood had started a tradition of giving a secret gift to one of their neighbors on the morning of December 13th. It came to be known as Christmas Breather, since it was an exciting break in the middle of the busy holiday rush. Every family in the neighborhood picked a house and left a gift on the doorstep sometime after sunset on the evening of the 12th or before sunrise on the morning of the 13th. If the giver found that there was a gift already there on the intended porch, they had to move to another house until they found an empty doorstep to leave their present.
It started with just a few neighbors, but had grown to include several blocks. The gifts had become more elaborate as well: fancy cheesecakes, decorative wreathes, and even large lawn ornaments. Everyone got excited about Christmas Breather. The lengths that people would go to deposit their presents that evening had almost become a sport in itself. Many Christmas decoration storage boxes throughout the neighborhood now included several pieces of stealth equipment, such as motion detectors and night-vision goggles. This family was no exception. Little did the neighbors suspect that interwoven in the Christmas lights on the roofline of the house were several low-light cameras put there specifically for that evening. Due to various schemes the previous year, Dad had not gotten out to deliver the family’s gift until just after sunrise on the 13th. He finally found a small dark house several blocks away that didn’t have a present on the porch. This year, with the aid of an elaborate diversion, he managed to place the family’s present much earlier in the evening.
Today, most of the family members were wearing their Christmas socks that they had received last year for Christmas Breather (all except Landon who had ruined his socks during the summer in building a gopher trap). The socks were warm and comfortable, and had been a memorable Breather gift for the family. This year’s gift was bound to be memorable as well, but not for the same reasons.
It was so ugly and old. It might be different if it were either ugly or old, but both – that was just too much. It was made of some kind of white ceramic or plaster, which could be seen in the numerous spots where the paint had been chipped off. The entire lamp was in the shape of a giant mushroom house, with several smaller mushrooms forming various annexes. Interspersed among the windows and doorways were several miniature gnomes – old, ugly gnomes. The entire thing stood nearly four feet tall and weighed close to 50 pounds. On top of the lamp was a cheap faded yellow shade.
Dad hauled the monstrosity into the front room and the whole family stood around it staring. The looks on their faces ranged from wonder to loathing to fear. After a very long pause, Landon asked with an air of genuine concern, “what is it?” Dad replied that it appeared to be some kind of lamp and proceeded to plug the thing in. The room was immediately engulfed in a sickly pail yellow light. After yet another long and silent pause, Mom stated that it was getting late and that everyone needed to get ready for school or work. Each family member slowly pulled their gaze away from the lamp and dragged themselves away from the spectacle in their front room now sucking holiday cheer from the air. Each one of them had a dazed look on their face as they left the room, as if they had just witnessed a car accident.
Over the next few days, the family just tried to wrap their minds around the whole situation. Several neighbors came over to gaze at the thing and speculate who would have owned such a hideous object, let alone possibly conceive of giving it to another human being as a gift. Nobody had any ideas. In all the years the neighborhood had been participating in this tradition, no one had received anything like this. It had to be some kind of horrible mistake.
The lamp was placed in a back room of the basement. Several times various family members went down and stared at the lamp with a feeling of awe mixed with revulsion, except the younger children who were just afraid of it. The lamp appeared to be hand painted and the detail was impressive, but that didn’t make up for horrific form of the overall piece. Breaking it up and throwing it away had been discussed several times, but no one wanted to follow through with it. They really wanted it out of the house, but they also wanted to solve the mystery of where it came from. Besides there was also some unspoken feeling that damaging it might offend whatever demonic spirit originally created it or currently possessed it.
As Christmas day drew closer, the lamp was largely forgotten as other preparations and celebrations took over everyone’s time and thoughts. A few days before Christmas, a letter arrived from a local attorney’s office. It contained a forwarded letter that the attorney had been instructed to deliver to the family. The letter read:
Dear sir and family,
I hope you like my lamp. You don’t know me. I’m the man whose house you left the present at last year during the Breather Holiday. You see I’m alone. My wife died last year and we had no children. Last year was my first Christmas alone. I have no family so I wasn’t going to get anything for Christmas. It seems silly for an old man to say, but you can’t imagine how hard it is to have Christmas all alone. No one had ever left me a Breather present before. I stayed up the whole night just waiting for one. I didn’t expect to get one, but it was my only hope of getting a present this year. When the sun came up I broke down and cried because I didn’t get one and I felt so alone. Then you came and left me a present. You can’t imagine how happy I felt. That present got me through Christmas and gave me hope to continue on. This year I wanted to give you something. I don’t have much. The thing that I have that is worth the most is my lamp.
When my wife and I were first married, I bought her an unpainted lamp for our first Christmas. We were so poor and our apartment was so empty I wanted to get her something to decorate it with. The lamp was all I could afford. She almost cried because it was so ugly. I guess I have no taste for those kinds of things. She painted it anyway as best she could. Over the years we joked about it. It became a symbol of Christmas to us. It’s the only thing we still had from when we were first married. It’s the only thing I have of her now. I know it’s not as fancy as the other stuff you will get for Christmas. But I want to show you how much your present meant to me last year. Now I know why you call it the Christmas Breather. It was like a breath from heaven to me.
I can never thank you enough.
The attorney’s letter added that the old man was very ill, and had passed away on the 20th. His letter to the family was among his papers.
After finishing the letter, Dad immediately carried the lamp up into the front room and placed it next to the Christmas tree. For some reason, it wasn’t nearly as ugly as the family had remembered it being. The glow from the yellow lamp cast a warm hue over all of the Christmas decorations and bathed the room in a golden glow. Every family member sat and stared at it with a look of reverence. The care that had been taken to paint it so precisely was evident, as was the delicate repairs here and there around the sculpture.
From that year on, there were some new points added to the family’s Breather tradition. The evening of the 12th is the day that the lamp is brought out of storage and displayed in a prominent location next to the tree, and the letter read and discussed. The family also gives two Breather presents: one in the regular tradition, and a second one to some small dark house without a present (no matter how far Dad has to drive to find such a house).
No matter what colorful adjectives visitors use to describe the lamp to the family, and how much they try to convince them to dispose of it (and many have tried), nothing can dissuade them from seeing it for something else: a breath from heaven.