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The snow had piled higher during the night and the parking lot behind J.C. Penny’s was six inches deep with grooved slush and patches of undisturbed white that reflected back the sunlight of the December morning. Like a can of shaken soda, we burst from the family station wagon, bundled in stocking hats, knitted mittens, and breathless anticipation. Across the street, the bells of St. Andrews rang out to greet us. We were instantly hushed as their echoing tones wrapped us in the magic of “Christmas-time in the city.”

Holding the hands of younger siblings, we skipped down Main Street with it’s tinsel shaped bells hung from lamp posts. Store windows greeted us with displays of merchandise and suspended glass ornaments. A couple of blocks later we arrived at the Bonanza Five and Ten where we stopped. “Be good,” our mother instructed before she opened the door. We smiled, clutched our coins, and scattered in search of the perfect gifts.

The aisles stretched into the dimness of the far back, but we were guided to a section near the front dominated by a square table filled with toys. There were many treasures to choose from: bouncing balls, jacks, marbles, jump ropes and books. There were more choices than we’d imagined.

Once, on a summer day, my parents visited some friends who lived in a small town.The daughter had shown me how to play jacks on the packed earth behind the house. From then on, jacks enticed me. I was sure that with practice I could learn to scoop the correct number of spiked shapes while the ball bounced and then snatch the rubber sphere from the air with the dexterity of a champion. But this trip was about the wonder of buying a gift for someone else.

My second grade class had drawn names in school and I had pulled out a slip of paper that read, “Wayne.” He was a quiet boy with a round face behind glasses. I didn’t know him well, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t interested in jacks. I chose a slim book with a gold spine.

My two sisters, who were also there for classmate gifts, selected theirs and we took our selections to the check out counter.

A lady, with piled hair and glasses that rose into points on the sides, rang up our selections one at a time, pushing the buttons on the register like the keys on my dad’s typewriter. We gave her our various forms of 50¢ and then stepped back, clutching our selections with pride. 

We waited while our mom bought a few things she needed, like flash bulbs or film. After she was rung up, she opened her purse and pulled out her S&H green stamp book. The lady with the cat-eyed glasses gave mom a couple of strips of stamps. Mom tucked them inside the book, returned it the brown vinyl purse, and snapped the gold clasps shut. Later, at home, one of us would get to sit on the edge of her bed and help her stick the stamps inside. I don’t know what she redeemed them for. Perhaps something special for herself, but probably something practical for the house.

The next day we took our wrapped gifts to school where mine was added to the pile for distribution. I don’t remember what I received, but I remember watching carefully to see how Wayne responded to his book.

It was my first experience with giving to someone other than a brother or a sister. And the first time I gave a gift to someone I didn’t know. Wayne pulled the paper from the shape that told in advance what he was getting. He held the book in his left hand, his right hand suspended with the wrapping still clutched. Then a quiet, small smile crossed his face and I saw him glance around, as if wondering who had chosen his gift. I ducked my head in satisfied embarrassment.  

In that moment, I better understood something that I couldn’t explain, but that my heart suddenly knew. That gift had brought him a moment of happiness, but had forged for me a memory filled with the message of Christmas.

Sometime in the 12th Century, long before station wagons, cash registers or cameras, but not before church bells greeted people on winter days, St. Francis had defined it: “For it is in giving that we receive”