Around the end of the year, with dark arriving late in the afternoon, I cheer myself thinking of Christmas. Getting ready, deciding which gifts, ordering them, shopping for them and wrapping them always has been the best part.
This is my challenge, and it gets harder every year -- trying to decide exactly which gift for each person on my list, because that will mean I've got somewhat of the essence of who that person is.
Unlike prior years, when a check for the next month's rent could reduce our young daughter to grateful tears, most of those on my list now need less but desire more.
I've never been into the gross material side of Christmas, the overflow of packages beneath the tree and the sheer accumulation of expense as proof of love. My gifts are meant to recognize each person in an intimate way.
Christmas is about comfort, not things: hearty food, soothing drink, warm hearth, warm house after the cold outside. Christmas is about savoring your friends.
I began cherishing this time, when love was uppermost, a long time ago with baby-sitting money and whatever I could save from my allowance. I did most of my shopping at Woolworth's on Grant Street. You could browse for a long time "just looking."
Coins and bills, clutched and counted, and counted again. For my mother, I spent the most. She coveted pine bath oil. For that I wandered in the wonder of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson's in downtown Buffalo, a store bursting with golden balls, tinseled trees, magenta ribbons and Christmas carols. Outside in Shelton Square our neighbor, Mrs. Burrell, led office workers, bankers, lawyers, shoppers and others in carols.
The chestnut man sold chestnuts from his cart; the women from the Seneca reservation sold holly. And the Electric Building changed colors at the top: red, green and white. In those moments, peace was possible. And hope. Coming home, cradling my packages on the Baynes-Richmond bus lit against the creeping gloom of those December days, was Christmas.
It was the joy of parsing out my money for the capture of something useful or beautiful, or both. One year, I managed to save enough to buy my mother a teapot I'd seen glittering in the window of Weed's hardware store. Victorious, bringing home that teapot, I carried gold and myrrh. I bought books for my girlfriends, the cheap five-and-ten kind, which I read before wrapping.
Handkerchiefs were the standard for teachers, aunts and grandmothers. You could vary that, denting your thumb and forefinger while laboriously jabbing what seemed like a million cloves into an apple. I made stuffed animals for my sister, knitted slipper socks for my Dad. One Christmas I took on an argyle vest -- 14 bobbins and uncountable tangled instructions -- for a man I thought I loved.
Christmas was about making do, eking out, conniving and contriving. It was about thought and care. Within each almost-perfect best thing I could find for what I had to spend was care, and before that was long deliberation.
Today, weaving through aisles choked with goods, sorting through piles of sweaters, ties, gloves or scarves, and thinking as you hand over your plastic and sign the credit slip that this is probably the wrong size, the wrong color, or just wrong, is hardly like that.
Christmas is never about money. It's always about gifts: of your time, of your patience, of your reaching toward another's heart.
Barbara DeMille, of Rensselaerville, remembers when Christmas was most fun.