The Christmas Gift | A Short Story By Catherine Salgado
This story was submitted for the 2015 Winter Quarter Short Story Contest. While it wasn’t a finalist entry, the judges enjoyed it, and felt it merited being shared with the community. Congratulations, Catherine!
“I know what I want this year for Christmas.”
The simple statement had the effect of entirely silencing the Marcels’ breakfast table.
Lizzie, the baby of the large family of six children at five years old, almost always got attention like that. With her blonde ringlets, huge sky-blue eyes, and rosy cheeks, Lizzie looked like a cherub, but her strange personality, a blend of almost adult seriousness and nearly wild joy, carried a weight belied by her looks.
Since Lizzie rarely requested anything, and even at Christmastime hardly ventured to say she might want something, her whole family, from her parents to her grandmother to her siblings, paid attention when she made such an announcement.
“What is it you want, dear?” asked Mrs. Jean Marcel with interest.
“Do you know those beautiful china dolls we saw in the shop window the other day? I would like the one dressed as a lady from the War for Independence.”
Most girls of five would have been firmly told that they were by far too young and wild to be allowed to own one of the expensive, hand-crafted china dolls Lizzie was referencing. But Lizzie was different.
She’d only ever really broken beyond repair two toys. One breakage had been a complete accident, and the other was the fault of her prankster brother Jim, who startled her while she was on a stretch of cement.
Jean gravely thought over her daughter’s request, in between handing a napkin to Jim, who was covered in oatmeal for unknown reasons.
“They’re expensive,” she ventured at last, anxiously glancing at her husband, Paul.
Paul glanced up. He looked exactly like Lizzie (or vice versa), and the expression in his eyes right now exactly matched Lizzie’s. “True, but I DID get a bonus from my boss for Christmas…” “Oh, you won’t have to buy it for me,” Lizzie announced brightly. “I’m going to ask Santa Claus for the doll. Are we going to see him soon, Mommy?”
“Probably Wednesday—that’s two days from now, and two days before Christmas. That should be plenty of time, don’t you think?” Jean asked.
“Oh, plenty,” Lizzie answered serenely.
The conversation recorded above did not much interest her four brothers—they had Christmas dreams of their own and after teasing Lizzie for wanting something so silly as a doll, they completely forgot about the whole thing. The impression made on Lizzie’s only sister, however, was larger.
Caty Marcel, at twenty, was the eldest of a homeschooling family, and until five years ago, had only had brothers. The first circumstance had made her responsible, and the latter circumstance had made her tough, and persevering.
Caty was extremely fond of Lizzie, and merely stopped at doting on her. The non-materialistic attitude of the youngest Marcel, even at Christmas, made Caty feel that her one request should be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Caty knew her mother and brothers.
Jean never ended up doing her own Christmas shopping, though always with a good excuse—usually the excuse was provided by the disasters created by her brothers. For the last few years, Jean had drawn up a list and Caty had done the shopping. Caty foresaw that the same thing would happen this year, though Jean had all the good intentions in the world, and Lizzie would only be allowed to go to the mall with her mother.
Caty was not top of her class at the near-by college for nothing, however. She was smart, and she was determined she was going to get that doll for Lizzie, if that’s what it took to make her sister happy.
On Wednesday, Jim took the lid off of the blender at breakfast. This would not have been a problem if the blender were off, or empty—unfortunately, it was neither. Jean was fond of having a berry smoothie in the morning.
This morning, she got no smoothie, because the smoothie was all over the walls, floor, ceiling, and appliances of the kitchen. The mess caused was so great that the entire morning was spent by the family cleaning it up. Since even then the sink had a sloppy mess of berry smoothie in it, Jean distractedly handed Caty the Christmas list and begged her to do the shopping.
Lizzie’s face visibly fell.
Jean didn’t notice, because she was so preoccupied, but Caty did. “Mother, can’t I bring Lizzie along?” she asked.
“No, dear, just go by yourself. The mall will be too wild for you to do all the shopping and keep track of Lizzie, too. Jim, stop that!” Here the eldest son had the grace to collar Jim and give him a good shaking.
Seeing that she could do no more good here, Caty hastily decamped from the situation. She seized her heavy coat, hat, gloves, and boots, and paused by the telephone in the guest room to dial Gary.
Gary Adams was her fiancé, a fellow History major at the same college, and an old family friend.
If anyone could help her, Gary could.
He picked up after the third ring. That was the nice thing about Gary. He almost always answered his cell phone quickly. “Hello? Gary speaking.” Caty brushed one of her strands of straight brown hair out of her face and answered, “Gary? This is Caty. I have a problem.” “Uh-oh. What did Jim do this time?” Caty couldn’t resist a laugh. “Took the lid off the blender while Mom was making a smoothie. The kitchen was covered—we’re still cleaning it up, and that was breakfast.”
Gary groaned. “What a kid! Do you need me to come over and help clean the mess up?”
Caty adjusted the phone.
“No, actually. You see, it’s Lizzie…” She explained the situation. “And you know that Lizzie gets tired easily because of her heart condition. That’s why Mom doesn’t want me to take her to the mall by myself. It’s a pretty long list I’ve got.”
There was a short silence from the other end of the line, as Gary thought. At last, he said, “Tell you what. I’ve got some Christmas shopping of my own to do, which I’ve been putting off. I’ll meet you at the mall, outside the main entrance. I’ve got an idea.”
Caty was somehow made hopeful by the confident tone in his voice. “Can you tell me what it is?”
“Nope. See you there!”
Gary was already waiting when Caty arrived. She picked him out fairly easily, because he was so tall. His black hair and leather jacket were flecked with snow, but his smile was warm. “Hey, Caty!” “Hello, Gary,” she answered, relieved. “Now, what is this big plan of yours?”
He put a hand on her shoulder and steered her through a group of teens to the main entrance. “Wait until we get inside. It’s too cold out here.”
Caty couldn’t argue with that, especially since the snow was picking up again, and the temperature was below freezing.
Inside, she insisted they sit down in the food court and talk.
“Now, how are we going to get Caty that doll?” “Well, I was thinking. You don’t have much extra money right now, do you?” “No.” “And neither do I. Not enough to buy the doll, anyway. But what I was thinking is this.” Gary leaned forward. “We could tell Santa Claus about Lizzie’s request, couldn’t we?” Caty considered that. “Yes, sure. But the line today is sure to be huge and we—or at least I—have lots of shopping to do.”
“So do I. However, we could do this. We could take turns in the line for St. Nick, and when we’re not in line, we could be shopping—for both of us!” Gary beamed at her. Caty, however, saw a potential pitfall. “Will they allow us to switch out several times?” “Oh, sure,” he dismissed her fears easily. “Come on, it’s the best plan I can think of, and it won’t take THAT long…” he coaxed.
Caty thought of the look on Lizzie’s face when she found out she couldn’t go to the mall and made her decision.
“Right. Here’s my list—I’ll stand in line first.”
The line WAS long. As in really, really, REALLY long. It looped around and around in dizzying circles and spilled out of the designated area into the regular walkway.
Seeing the daunted look on Caty’s face, Gary hummed a few bars of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” said he’d be back in fifteen minutes, and pushed her into line behind a mother with a squalling toddler. Caty watched him walk toward a kitchen supply store and sighed.
Crowds were one thing she hated dealing with. The mall was another.
“But it’s for Lizzie,” she reminded herself, trying to block out the ever more shrill crying of the toddler in front of her. “Lizzie was so disappointed…”
This fortified her. Slipping her rosary out of her purse and peeling off her gloves, she crossed herself and began to pray. Praying always calmed her. Now, praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary and anticipating the celebration of the Nativity in just two days, she began to feel better.
She was just finishing with the Hail, Holy Queen as had advanced about twenty feet in the line when Gary reappeared, carrying bags from both the kitchen supply store and Bath and Body Works (his mom and Caty’s both loved expensive lotion).
“Holding up, Caty?” he asked, politely edging around a young mother with three children.
“Yes. Here, give me both lists. See you in fifteen minutes!”
Gary was almost at the front of the line when Caty came to switch with him for the third time. Caty had a bit of a hard time reaching him, but she made it at last, albeit a bit disheveled. “Should reach St. Nick in a few minutes. Good luck!”
Leaving her in possession of their steadily mounting pile of packages, he grabbed the two lists and began weaving his way through the line. Caty watched him until he disappeared in a sports store, and then turned to look around a huge stack of wrapped boxes (you know the sort of background malls provide for Santa Claus).
Yes, only a few people away now! She could almost see St Nicholas—his chair was turned slightly away from her. It was big, and he was leaning back in it.
Sighing, she bounced on the balls of her feet, a bit impatiently.
However, in about five minutes, the mother with the squally toddler had her turn and Caty dragged the bags forward for the last time. She began, for the first time, to formulate what she might say in her mind. For some reason, she hadn’t done that until now.
Suddenly, she realized the awkwardness of her situation. Here she was, twenty years old, and standing in the middle of a heap of bags she probably couldn’t carry on her own, waiting for Santa Claus. She flushed slightly.
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in Santa Claus—after all, he was a saint of the Catholic Church, and therefore obviously quite real—but how was she going to explain that she was hear to ask a present for an absent sister? Yes, that would be odd indeed.
She bit her lip, and then abruptly realized that the man near-by dressed as an elf was beckoning her forward.
She tried to gather all the packages, dropped two, and turned crimson. Then, Lizzie’s face came into her head… With the help of the elf, who seemed fairly obliging, she deposited her bags near the throne-like chair and finally approached its occupant.
“Here, pose for a photo,” called a female elf. Alarmed, Caty hastily shook her head and said, “No, thanks. No photos. I just want to ask Santa Clause something.”
She turned to the man himself.
Santa Claus certainly looked jolly, and his fur-trimmed suit was remarkably fancy. He winked one twinkling blue eye at her. “And what may YOU want, young lady?” he asked. His tone of friendly comradery encouraged her. Perching on the arm of his chair—she might be tall, but she was thin—she smiled at him. “I’m not here for myself, actually. It’s my little sister, Lizzie. You see…”
Santa Claus listened in silence while she talked, nodding and murmuring ever so often in a sympathetic sort of way.
When Caty was done talking, he smiled at her.
“I see, I see. Your sister couldn’t come to talk to me herself, so you and your friend Gary decided to do it for her. This Gary seems a most unusual young men, to put himself out so just to make sure his future sister-in-law gets a doll.” Caty sat up straighter.
Up until that point, she had been just thinking of the toy—but suddenly she realized something. A gift is more than just the material it is made out of.
“Oh, but it isn’t just that! Lizzie hardly ever asks for anything, and she set her heart on this doll, and then she didn’t even complain at all when she didn’t get to come today, even though she’d been working all morning, and she’s only five years old. Besides, the doll isn’t just a doll. It’s all the happiness it will bring to her, her excitement when she opens it up, and I know she’ll be so grateful…”
St. Nicholas smiled a knowing smile.
“I understand, my dear. Don’t worry, your Lizzie will get her present. And your brothers you mentioned, did they want anything?”
Caty told him what she could remember of her brothers’ requests, and then, she gave Santa Claus a grateful hug. “You’ve been awfully understanding. I hope I wasn’t too long about it.” “Oh, not at all. Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas.
With the aid of the obliging male elf, Caty got all of her packages to the exit. Gary was waiting for her, and he flashed her a grin. “Talked to St. Nick?” “Yes, and I even told him what Jim and the other boys want, too. Can you help me with these?” Gary shifted the one bag on his arm and took the lion’s share of the others. “Sure. All right, I think we have everything, don’t we?” Caty ran down the items on Jean’s list and mentally added the present she’d bought Gary. “Yes, I’m all checked off. And you?”
“Good to go. Come on, I’ll go home with you. Phone your mother that we’re buying supper on the way.”
Jean, who had been trying to mix batter all afternoon and kept having to make more because of all the “spoonfuls” her sons took, was delighted at the prospect of having Gary and supper brought to her. She sounded much more cheerful on getting off the phone, especially after hearing that the Christmas list was all checked off.
Caty had wanted to tell Lizzie about visiting Santa Claus. Gary, however, advised that it should be a surprise.
Lizzie, uncharacteristically, seemed the only glum one at supper that night. She resisted all efforts to be cheered, even by Gary (whom she loved), and by the time she trailed up to bed, was almost sulking.
Shocked and upset, Caty was about to follow Lizzie, but Jim distracted her. “Let me see your Christmas list, Caty.” Caty brought out her Christmas list, and Jim, his eldest brother, and Gary perused it. Gary seemed pleased, but the other boys cheerfully made fun of her for asking for a scarf.
“How boring is THAT!” said Jim.
Normally, Caty would have given a spirited defense of her choices. Now, however, thinking of Lizzie upstairs, she just shrugged and said, “Maybe you’re right.”
Gary gave Caty a sharp look and asked her if she were feeling all right. “Yes,” answered Caty, her thoughts still with her little sister. When her brothers had moved away to do something else, she asked Gary, “Can’t I just tell her that we asked Santa Claus for the doll for her?” “No, it should be a surprise,” Gary replied. “But she seemed so upset!” Caty exclaimed.
So that’s why you didn’t care if Jim criticized your scarf! Don’t worry, Caty, it will make the surprise even nicer for her on Christmas Day.”
“But what if she doesn’t get it?” asked Caty worriedly. Gary put an arm around her. “Caty, Caty. I know you’ve set your heart on getting Lizzie that doll. But is it really important enough to ruin the holiday over? Yes, if she doesn’t get it—and I think she will—then she’ll be disappointed. But in the end, it won’t last very long. Plus, I think you’re missing the most important thing here. Christmas is about Jesus, NOT about whether you get the perfect gift or not. That’s why I didn’t even bother asking for different items this year.”
Caty drew back and looked at him in astonishment. “You didn’t?”
He smiled and shook his head.
“No. I’ve just convinced myself that I’ll be happy with what I get. If you DO set your heart on getting a certain thing, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed. But if you make up your mind to be happy with what’s given you, you get pleasant surprises and you don’t have any disappointments.” Caty mulled over what he’d said. “But you can’t explain that to a five-year-old. I understand what you’re saying, but how can Lizzie?”
“I know. But quite frankly, I think that you’d be more disappointed than she at this point. Not that that’s a bad thing, it shows you care more about her than yourself.”
Gary flashed her a grin.
Christmas morning there were many presents under the Christmas tree. Caty smiled sleepily as she watched her brothers and Lizzie pick out their presents from the jumble, counting them, and trying to guess what may be under the gay papers.
Paul joined in the fun, helping Lizzie and Jim (the two youngest) hunt for their gifts and laughing like a boy when his older son pelted him with tinsel. Jean rolled her eyes at Caty and went to make pancakes before the opening of stockings.
Christmas Mass was beautiful.
The little parish church was decorated with poinsettias, garlands, pine trees, and a lovely, life-size crèche.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” The first chapter of St. John was the Gospel for this Mass. “The Life was the Light of men, and the Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Caty listened carefully to the familiar words. “And He gave us His only Son, that all might come to believe through Him.” That was the first and most wonderful Christmas gift—Jesus!
Caty looked toward the front of the church at Jesus lying in the manger, and suddenly felt a great sense of peace.
“I’m just happy to be here at Mass, and to have my family, and fiancé, and friends around me. Gary’s right—the presents aren’t important. But this is the first year that I realized that! St. Nicholas gives us presents and we give them to each other, because we remember Jesus as God’s gift, NOT because it’s simply ritual. Think of all the stressing we do every year because we have to find the ‘perfect’ gift for everyone! And think how we focus so much on our exhilaration or disappointment about a certain item we’ll probably forget in a week! From now on, I’m just going to be grateful for what I have and get.”
But she still couldn’t help hoping that Lizzie got her doll.
Gary was at Mass with his parents, and he asked to come over and watch the Marcels open their presents. He was eagerly accepted.
Back at home, as soon as everyone was out of their church clothes and all the cameras were carefully set up, the Marcel family, from Jean and Paul all the way down the line to Lizzie, began opening presents.
Naturally, the younger the person was, the more presents he got, with Jim and Lizzie getting the most presents. Gifts from family members were always first, and Santa Claus’ always last.
Caty got more than she expected.
Gary had even bought her one of the items on her Christmas list, a bracelet, and he was delighted with the ball cap she’d gotten him (he loved baseball).
By the time the Marcel kids reached the gifts from St. Nick, Jim was getting rowdy, the other boys were a bit carried away, and Lizzie seemed a little subdued. She had politely thanked everyone and exclaimed over her presents, but there was a warmth lacking. She picked up the large wrapped box from Santa Claus almost gingerly, Caty noticed.
Caty and Gary exchanged glances and leaned forward expectantly as Lizzie slowly unwrapped the box.
“It’s got lots of tape on it,” she remarked. “Here, let me grab the scissors,” said Caty, and was back in no time. Gary stepped around Jim, who was rejoicing over a skateboard, and took the scissors from Caty. Even Jean and Paul were watching now. Lizzie watched rather anxiously as Gary cut away the tape and lifted up the cover of the box. Now the eldest Marcel boy was watching as well.
Lizzie looked in the box and gasped. “He got it for me! Oh, he GOT it for me!”
Gary, laughing, cut the last bits of string and Lizzie ecstatically lifted her doll out of its box. It was a beautiful doll, wearing a light blue, lacy dress in the style of the period during which occurred the American War for Independence. The doll’s hair was even styled like a powdered wig, and she had accessories, as well. Lizzie couldn’t believe her good luck, she seemed dazed.
Her family seemed relieved.
Jean leaned back against the sofa cushions with a sigh of relief. Paul gave Lizzie a thumbs up and a smile. Lizzie’s eldest brother grinned and went back to sorting his own gifts. Meanwhile, Caty was aware of a happiness that she had gotten from none of her own presents. Lizzie was so delighted, it made Caty feel wonderful. Gary put aside the scissors and sat down next to Caty with a wink.
“But how did he know?” Lizzie was asking. “How did he know that I wanted this particular doll?”
“Should we tell her?” whispered Caty.
Gary shrugged and leaned back. “Why not?”
Caty tapped her sister on the shoulder. “Lizzie? I’ll tell you how he knew. Gary and I went to the mall together, and we took turns shopping and waiting in line for Santa Claus. I told him all about what you—and your brothers—wanted, and he assured me he’d get the gifts to you.”
Jean and Paul were pleased, and so were their sons. But over Lizzie’s face came a wonderful expression. “You mean—you made all that effort just so that I could have this doll?” she gasped. “Well, we didn’t want you to be disappointed,” Caty explained. Lizzie hugged the doll tight, and then she got up, came over, and gave both Gary and Caty long hugs. “I’m going to name her Caty Adams,” she added, indicating the doll. “Her first name is for you, Caty, and her last name is for you,” turning to Gary, “because I can’t name her Gary, as she’s a girl.”
Caty hugged her sister again while Gary exclaimed, “But Santa Claus was the one who gave you the present, not we!”
Lizzie smiled wisely.
“But you see, he wouldn’t have known to give it to me if you hadn’t told her. I’m so much happier now, knowing you did that! Mommy, may I take her up to my room and play with her a while?” “Of course, darling, just as soon as ever you like,” Jean answered quickly. Beaming with delight, Lizzie ran gaily upstairs holding Caty Adams in her arms, a very different little girl than the one who’d dragged her feet to bed just two days ago.
“That was so sweet of you two,” Jean said to Gary and Caty, who were getting rather abashed.
Paul added seriously, “It made the doll even more precious to Lizzie.”
About an half an hour later, Gary and Caty found themselves alone in the same room. All—or nearly all—the torn wrappings were thrown away, the recipients had taken their new possessions to their rooms, and Jean and Paul were enjoying some cocoa and quiet in the kitchen.
Gary smiled at Caty.
“Well, didn’t I tell you it would be a happy ending?” “Yes, you were right, and not just about that. I’m going to remember how happy this Christmas was not just because of all the wonderful gifts I got, but because of Lizzie being to happy about getting that doll. In fact, this whole thing has been kind of eye-opening. I was so determined to work out Lizzie’s dilemma—which, thanks to you, I did—that I wasn’t even thinking about what I wanted!”
Gary became thoughtful.
“You know, I think this is what they mean when they say, ‘May the Christmas spirit last all year round!’”
“That’s right,” agreed Caty. “Christmas, and even giving gifts, isn’t about stuff. It’s about thinking of what you can do for others, and appreciating that other put the same kind of thought and love into YOUR gifts. It teaches us to think of others, and it also teaches us a virtue a lot of people don’t have—gratitude. Sometimes we get to caught up in the whole business of gifts and decorations and dinners and all the rest, that we forget Jesus should be at the center of every aspect of Christmas, not just Mass!”
Gary put an arm around Caty and they contentedly watched the snow swirling outside the window behind the Christmas tree.
“And Christmas happens every year just in case we forget that lesson,” Gary added with a smile.
About Catherine Salgado
I am a sixteen-year-old junior and the eldest of five children living in Tucson, Arizona. Writing and drawing are my favorite hobbies besides reading, and I especially enjoy writing novels. My ambitions are to earn a degree in Theology, work in the pro-life movement, and publish one of my novels.