My Favorite Christmas Gift: The Power of Memory

On December 25, after watching that classic movie “A Christmas Story,” I sat with my family sharing stories about the best Christmas gifts we’d ever received.

I didn’t have to think long; my favorite gift came immediately to mind. But not until it was my turn to share did it really hit me. I hadn’t thought about this gift for years, maybe never as an adult. But as soon as I tried to tell about it, I couldn’t get the words out. Overcome with emotion, I would have wept if everyone hadn’t been watching me. Instead what came out was a mixture of tears and crazy laughter that went on and on. 

Why the big reaction? Because suddenly I not only remembered this gift, but for one second I felt actually transported back into my living room on Hartford Street in 1957 when I was five years old. And there, under the mantel on Christmas morning, was my gift from Santa. The sense of immediacy was overwhelming, like a moment of time travel. I don’t think I’ve ever had a comparable experience of a memory restored with such sudden and intense realism. 

So what was it, this marvelous gift that sixty-two years later had the power to blow me away? Even now, though I can still see it vividly, I hardly know how to describe it. But here goes: It was a set of little plastic buildings with little plastic people. What more to say? There was nothing remarkable about this gift; indeed just the opposite. It was an ordinary, inexpensive toy, and many other presents I’ve received over the years have been more sensational. But when asked for my favorite gift of all, this was the one that sprang to mind, and the memory produced in me a reaction of prolonged and helpless hysterics. 

Why? Who knows? Maybe what I was recalling was not just that little plastic village but the hours and hours I would spend playing with it for years (yes!) to come. Or perhaps there were other special things about that Christmas morning that I don’t recall, which somehow flowed together to create a terrific thrill. 

More likely, I was simply overcome by the vividness of the memory, emerging all at once like a hologram in my brain. One moment, just one of a multitude of ordinary yet magical moments that I might have recalled from childhood. Might have, but did not. With few exceptions, all the others remain locked away, inaccessible to me now. But this one somehow popped into the present like a Jack-in-the-box crying Surprise! 

And now I wonder: What if I possessed total recall? What if I could, at will, call to mind all of those ordinary, magical, childhood experiences and somehow access the same wide-eyed, wondering appreciation of a little boy exploring a stupendous world for the first time? Because frankly I think my whole life, including my adult life, is crammed full and overflowing with experiences at least as wonderful as the discovery of that little plastic village on Christmas morning. I just don’t notice or value them, can’t bear to give them their full weight, let alone remember them. If I did, I’d end up spending my whole life in what the British call the screaming habdabs. 

And so life goes on, tumbling and tumbling from marvel to marvel, a deep and wide river in full flood carrying far, far too many experiences for us to process, way too many moments to remember even in one single day, too many blessings to fully take in and receive. 

Too many gifts. 

(The photo shows all that now remains of my favorite-ever Christmas gift. I especially like the holes in these figures’ hands, the obvious purpose of which is to hold things. They remind me of the wounds in Jesus’ hands, also made to hold something: Love.) 

Next Post:  Retroactive Grace: A Visit to Brockville

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