The Accidental Podcaster: The Ghosts of Christmas Presents
One of my favorite authors ever is the American short story writer William Sydney Porter, better known by his nom de plume of O. Henry. Even if you haven’t read his work, you’ve almost certainly seen some adaptation of one of his most famous stories, The Gift of the Magi. The story is simple. A young wife, Della, crushed that she has practically nothing with which to buy her beloved husband Jim a Christmas gift, decides to sell her greatest treasure-her long, beautiful hair-in order to buy a chain worthy of his prized pocket watch. She makes this sacrifice gladly in her excitement to present something special to the one person she loves most. When presented with the gift and a newly shorn wife, however, Jim is dumbstruck; he’s sold his watch to buy a set of long-coveted hair combs to adorn the now-missing tresses of his beloved wife. Were they foolish? Perhaps. But what resonates about the story isn’t about the gifts themselves. Both selflessly sacrificed their greatest treasures in the pursuit of making the other happy, illustrating the point of the season: to give selflessly and do what you can in the pursuit of bringing joy to those you love.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot the past few days. As is usual for this time of year, my little subterranean office looks like an elf snuck in and exploded Christmas everywhere. Every surface is covered with candies, cookies, and craft parts; every corner heaped with rolls of paper and piles of packages, some incoming, most outgoing. Sorting bins and multiple dry erase boards of battle plans help soothe my harried brain, as does the fact that the last of the Christmas boxes (both directions) are finally on their way. Two weeks of writer’s block, three inboxes of temporarily ignored email, and a stack of unfinished editing drafts, however, do not. Nor do deadlines that loom and pass unfulfilled while the to-do list seems to grow at an exponential rate. As I gaze about the carefully controlled chaos, I wonder again, as I do every year, why I don’t take the easy way out. Screw the stress, gift cards for all. Be done with travel plans forever. Buy some holiday cookies from the bakery, and to hell with the tree. There are moments I can very much relate to the Grinch’s sentiments at the beginning of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The whole season is a lot of work, on top of the lot of work I normally undertake. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of noise. I completely understand why so many people get overwhelmed and depressed this time of year. And I hate feeling that way.

But at the same time, I can’t picture a life without some form of a Christmas season. Despite the bitching by some about the secularization of the holiday, I like that it’s evolved to become a festival of sorts that everyone I know - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, that one guy from college who practices Buddhism - celebrates in some way. There’s something to be said for coming together collectively during the darkest days of the year to spread lights, shut down normal production for a week or two, gather together where you can and ship packages of joy to those you can’t be with in the flesh - physical reminders of the place they hold in your heart.

To clarify that last point, as with the Magi story, it isn’t about the gifts themselves. When I send Christmas boxes, they are particular to the recipient - tokens of an in-joke, a memory, a wish hoped for, a dream or a goal. Over the years, on other cold and grey Christmas Eves, I wasn’t driving through white out conditions through the Appalachians with a gingerbread teddy bear strapped in my passenger seat because I liked eggnog and bad decisions. I wasn’t standing shivering on Matt Trayers’s porch just to deliver an ornament. I wasn’t singeing my fingertips getting just-from-the-oven cookies into little vaccuum-sealed bags for overseas shipping and arguing with customs officials over my declarations forms just because I wanted to send a friend a cookie. No. I was delivering miracles, promises, a bit of magic.

And in turn, the best presents I’ve received weren’t usually tangible things, like the picture one friend sent me where he hiked to the top of a mountain so that, just once, an ornament I sent him would hang on a proper tree. Or one caring enough to show up on my doorstep to make things right when we had an argument. Or getting to have tea and treats with another friend, even though we were 4100 miles away from each other. The bear I mentioned was a tangible thing, technically, but it wasn’t just a bear - the person who gave it to me, proprietress of the truckstop at the halfway point of my Cleveland-DuBois route along I-80, knew me from my frequent journeys along that stretch of road and wanted me to not be alone on that particular drive. The tokens are just reminders that no matter how dark things look, one shining little light can make all the difference in the world.

That is why we do what we do, why we put up with the stress and the snow and the crowds and the trappings of ritual, year after year. That is the Magi.


WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING: Skipping around through the various short stories from The Complete Works of O. Henry
THREE THINGS I’M LISTENING TO ON REPEAT: Slipknot, Duality; Green Day, She; Weezer, The Good Life
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