“Why should we even bother to put up the tree this year?” I muttered, pushing aside the packing boxes in the garage.
My sister, Mary, picked up a box of ornaments. “What’s Christmas without our tree?”
“What’s a Christmas tree without presents?” I countered.
Mary didn’t bother to answer. We all knew that the new house would be our only Christmas gift this year. Even the money we children would have spent on each other went into moving expenses. We lived on food storage and potatoes and looked forward to the raise Dad had been promised in January. We would each get a few small treats in our stockings but nothing under the tree.
When the tree was decorated, Mary and I stood back to admire our work. “I knew it would look great by that big window,” she said, smiling.
“There’s still a lot of empty space underneath it, though,” I pointed out gloomily.
I was still feeling gloomy as I prepared for bed that night. And to make matters worse, I couldn’t find my pajamas. Old and worn in the knees, they were nothing special to look at, but they were comfortable and warm, and I liked them. I looked in my dresser, under my bed, and in the hamper but couldn’t find them. Finally I gave up and put on a sweatsuit.
At school the next day, my new friend, Joan, was very excited. “Do you know what I want for Christmas this year?”
“What?” I asked without much enthusiasm.
“A new bike.”
“A new bike? What’s wrong with the one you have?” I had seen her bike. It had a bell on the handle and a big basket to carry her books in.
“It’s kind of bent from when I fell.” Joan frowned. “What’s wrong with you today, anyway?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.” Then I realized that nothing was exactly what was wrong with me. “I’m getting nothing for Christmas,” I explained.
“I’m sure you’ll get exactly what you want,” Joan said confidently.
When I came home from school that day, I was astonished to see a present under the tree. I blinked and looked closer, but it was still there. It was large and brightly wrapped—and it had my name on it!
I ran into the kitchen and found my mother looking through drawers and cupboards. “Mom,” I said breathlessly, “There’s a—” I stopped when I saw her troubled face.
“Have you seen my favorite paring knife?” she asked.
“The old one with the wooden handle? No.”
“I suppose I’ll have to use the newer knife,” Mom said with a sigh. “I like the old one because it fits my hand so well. I’ll be glad when I figure out a place for everything and everything stays in its place. By the way,” she continued, “did you know that there’s a present for you under the tree? I wonder where it came from.”
The next day at school, I told Joan about the present, and a girl named Barb overheard me. “Just one present?” she said. “There are dozens under our tree.”
Joan squeezed my hand and smiled. “I told you that you’d get exactly what you want,” she said.
A few days later, my brother, Mike, came home from ball practice looking discouraged.
“Hard practice?” Mom asked.
“No,” Mike said, “it isn’t that. I wanted to take my autographed basketball to show the team, and I couldn’t find it. I hope we didn’t lose it in the move.”
“I’m sure everything will show up when we finish unpacking the boxes,” Mom assured him.
I cheered up Mike by showing him the new present that had mysteriously appeared under the tree. This one had his name on it.
And so it went. Every few days another present appeared under the tree until there was something for everyone, even our dog. We could hardly wait for Christmas day to find out what was in those packages and who had given them to us.
Finally it was the last day of school before the holidays. My teacher was passing out candy canes, when Joan pulled me aside. “I got it!”
“My new ten-speed. My parents hid something big in the attic, so it must be my bike.”
“That’s great!” I said. “You’re getting exactly what you want.”
“I hope so.” Joan suddenly looked worried. “Barb told me that she had a ten-speed once but didn’t like it very much. I think I’ll hang on to my old bike, just in case.”
On Christmas morning, my family hurried through breakfast. We could hardly wait to open our presents. We emptied our stockings first, oohing and aahing over each package of gum, candy bar, and dollar-store trinket. Each small gift was a lot more fun because of the large, bright packages still awaiting us.
When we had finished with our stockings and were seated around the tree, holding our mystery gifts, Dad gave the signal for the unwrapping to begin. Usually we took turns, but this time no one could wait. As I tore open the paper, I could hear cries of delight from all around.
“I’m so glad!” Mary said. “I really wanted this.”
“I’ve looked everywhere for this,” Mike said.
“This is perfect,” Dad said. “It’s just what I wanted.”
I opened my own gift box and glimpsed plaid flannel folded beneath tissue paper. Was it a new pair of pajamas to replace the pair I’d lost? I’d really like that. But as I lifted it from the box, I realized that it wasn’t a new pair of pajamas. It was something much better—my old pair!
I hugged the soft pajamas to me. I was so happy to see them again! Never before had I been so thrilled by a present.
“Who did this?” Mary asked.
I looked over and saw Mom smiling, her gift unopened on her lap. “Merry Christmas, everyone,” she said. “Did you all get exactly what you wanted this year?”
“You bet!” my brother said as he happily twirled his basketball on his finger.
“What did you get?” I asked Mom.
“Yes,” Dad said. “Show us what you wanted for Christmas.”
Mom opened her box and held it out so that we could see what was inside.
“It’s empty.” Mike’s voice was sad. “You got nothing for Christmas.”
“Not really,” Mom said. “Because what I want most is what I already have.”
I felt the same way. I got nothing for Christmas—nothing new, that is. But I still got exactly what I wanted. And more. With a gift of nothing, my Mom taught me gratitude for everything I already had.
At lunch, after Dad and we three children searched and unpacked a zillion boxes, we gave Mom her old paring knife, wrapped in the biggest box we could find.