"Dear Santa, I want it all." This message, on a needlepoint pillow in a Christmas catalog, is at least candid. ¶ And, yes, the catalogs are piling up, dangling their bait in front of us. Shrewdly offering "the best" or "the ultimate." Offering happiness, at a price. Consider: For the child who has everything, how about a robot dog? Housebroken, of course, and just pennies under $200. Or, though it won't fit under the tree, a 14-foot inflatable snowman can be yours for a mere $1,999.95. Happiness, at a price. ¶ The question is, What price Christmas? What do we value — and why?
I have in front of me, at this moment, a handkerchief — a wisp of linen trimmed in lace and embroidered forget-me-nots. An ordinary thing, nevertheless it conveys the extraordinary message of Christmas.
To understand, you must know something of the person who gave it to me, my grand- mother, and of the events that preceded a Christmas of long ago.
Her story begins in a white frame house, deep in the Carolina mountains. It is dusk. Shadows settle on the house, the front porch with its wooden swing, and the woman sitting in it — gray-haired, eyes blue and serene, work-roughened hands folded in her lap. The swing creaks softly as she says:
"It was the summer of 1891. Money was scarce — but I thought it was an exciting time to be alive. I was 16 years old.
"Then, along about July, a typhoid epidemic struck. Both of my parents died, just 4 ½ weeks apart. But before he died, Papa made me promise something. 'Clelia,' he said, 'promise me you'll keep the children together. I know it won't be easy, but God will provide.'
"Well, of course, I promised. I had 11 younger brothers and sisters — the baby was only 9 months old.
"It was hard. One day a delegation from the church came to ask if I would consider putting the younger children up for adoption. They meant well — but I wouldn't hear of it!
"For a while, we managed. I made shirts for the little boys out of flour sacks, and stretched the food with potatoes — until one day the potatoes ran out. That night I had to put the children to bed without any supper. But I told them not to worry, the Lord would find a way.
"Well, later on, that very night, there came a knock at the door. It was the mailman, with a letter. He'd made a special trip because he 'had a feeling' it might be important.
"And it was! A woman from Philadelphia, a woman I'd never seen, had been vacationing up here and heard about our trying to stay together. She said that when she got home, she couldn't stop thinking about us. And in her letter was a check for $50.
"Now in those days $50 was a lot of money. And I had gotten a job teaching school for 50 cents a week, so for a while longer we managed.
"In time, though, the money ran out. I was desperate. Then, one Sunday afternoon, several deacons from the church came — with adoption papers.
" 'Clelia,' they said, 'we don't want you to think we've gone behind your back. But we had the papers drawn up and just want you to think about it. If you decide, all you have to do is sign. We'll take care of the rest.'
"I'll never forget that day. I hid the papers. But that night, after the children went to bed, I got the papers out and sat down in front of the fire to read them.
"It was bitter cold outside. Christmas was just a month or so away, and I thought about the little ones, and sat there and cried. I would rather have died than seen any of them adopted . . . but I didn't know what else to do.
"I actually had the pen in my hand, ready to sign — and all at once I thought about Papa, and the promise I had made him. I've never been so ashamed of anything in all my life.
"Well, I threw those papers in the fire and watched them burn. And then I got down on my knees and asked the Lord to forgive me.
"We came through, all of us. And, you know, that was the best Christmas ever . . .''
Can Christmas be bought, at any price? Hardly. One might as well try and bottle the wind. Christmas itself is a gift — the Ultimate Gift — and that, surely is what my grandmother realized.
Tampa Bay area resident Faith Barnebey spends her summers in Blowing Rock, N.C.