Boxing Day was a new concept to me years ago.
At age twenty, gypsy winds came calling on whiffs of Figgy Pudding and cloves. Christmas was over and done with on my side of the ocean. I was excited to get on with it. I was turning the crank on jack-in-the-box for whatever would pop up and unfold in the new year. In that spirit, I climbed on a plane the morning after Christmas and headed over the waters that separated America from England.
The plan was to stop mid-way to visit Georgina Noakes, who was spending traditional holidays with her family in Yorkshire, England before we both continued on to South Africa where I would sing in a radical multi-racial band and she would teach dance to youth between their high school and college years through story lines and music.
It never occurred to me that I might be running a needle straight through the holidays of my friend. I’d never heard of Boxing Day.
Georgina dutifully gathered me and my bags from the airport, put us into her car and car’s boot, and took me round to her friend’s flat where we shared Christmas pudding with whistles and pointy party hats and a hidden coin. After tea and cake, she carried on to an older couple’s country home where she introduced me and I listened to more stories. When it grew dark, we stopped again at a flat where her best friends gathered to light a live tree with live flames on small wax candles perched on fairy discs tied to the evergreen tines.
Laughter filled the air. Plans were discussed for going out to dance and meet up with other friends at a pub, but before all these after-dinner events occurred, gifts were exchanged in the name of Boxing Day.
“What’s Boxing Day?” I ventured.
That’s when my person was dressed down. I was taught the beguiling concept of regifting your unwanted blessings to friends who may need them more.
At first, it made no sense. Have none of you met together before Christmas and exchanged gifts already?
Oh, no. No, not at all! I was missing the whole point. Besides, Christmas is to be spent with family. There are traditions to adhere to like church or mass and Christmas dinner. Even those at the party who celebrated Hanukkah celebrated Boxing Day. Family members exchange gifts and after they leave, then comes the re-wrapping. Regifting. What a perfect idea. All the baubles began going wonky inside my admittedly exhausted brain. It had been a day and a half already, but I was having a landmark natural high for having learned about Boxing Day.
You see, and here comes my confession, I tend to have a lot of good intentions about shopping for others for Christmas, but when it comes to finally getting my rear end out of the car and paddling through the isles of a retail maze, my own wants are triggered and personal desires gradually climb to the summit of need.
I have to keep looking at my list to remember why I’m there and for whom.
If I am to get a kitchen gadget for my niece at Bed, Bath and Beyond, well, I accidentally also find an excellent waffle maker for our own kitchen. It loads itself into my cart.
If I am getting a flashlight for my nephew, I may find on the same row the socks I’ve been longing for. So, they walk their way into my basket.
If I’ve found a beautiful sweater for my mama or my best friend, it’s only because remembering my list, the guilt, after piling arms high with my delights, makes me throw on an item in the correct size for them.
All of this selfishness is the real reason that the Grinch comes slithering out of the cave at Christmas when all the lights are twinkling, and people’s hearts seem open to possibilities. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but it makes perfect sense to me. See, I hate to shop. Not only does my back hurt after an hour of meandering down the isles, but I always get buyer’s remorse when I buy what I can’t afford and hide it for a day or two inside the car pulling it out of the back seat when no-one’s looking so that I can gaze on it and discover a place for it in my house or in my closet.
That’s when some of these items wind up in a regifting bag.
Yes, yes, I’ve bought it for myself, but I’m going to give it to you because I don’t need it after all, or I can’t afford to go shopping again to get the gift I had in mind for you, so you’re getting mine now.
Boxing Day! The cleverness of getting away with, completely legitimately, the act of giving used gifts to friends made me stand taller alongside my habit of shopping for treasures and antiques at shops like Goodwill that also practice recycling.
I shop in these musty places because my money stretches like Pinocchio’s nose if I can find what I need there, and all the better, if the items happen to have their price tags still attached. Some do, you know. My own mother is gifted at finding the items with the tags on.
Both of our mothers, my husband’s and mine, taught us that it can be better to pay once for something of the best quality, than paying for lesser quality items several times over whenever they wear out.
Despite our mamas’ mantras honoring quality over quantity, another creed held certain longings at bay. “It isn’t what you earn, it’s what you save that counts.” Sometimes we absorb conflicting maxims and remain unsure of which to follow when.
On this pre-Christmas shopping event 20 years ago, my husband and I were at the local Goodwill for a “that’ll do coat”, I, because of my guilt and cleverness to “make do” in an expensive season. He, because of his penny-pinching, calculating parents who taught him to be narrow in the budget whenever possible.
I can’t remember what my husband was really there for. Maybe we were browsing for different reasons, but I was really there to get a “new” coat.
It was he who found the northern red wool. He lifted it off the rack and straight out of One Morning In Maine by Robert McCloskey. “Look at this one!” he called. I glanced his way and we both grinned.
Quilted Christmas green on the inside with a navy-blue trim, the duffle coat had a hood, several deep pockets, a zipper and crafted nautical buttons. I loved it immediately. It covered my rear end, and I expected it to have a luxurious L. L. Bean anorak label.
“Context,” it read inside. Nothing more.
I tried it on. It was satiny inside and roomy enough to grow into. He helped me slip into the red wool, and I zipped up the middle all the way to the mockneck. Buttoning the loose buttons, I dropped my hands into the large warm pockets and saw the dangling drawstrings from the hood. Details created curiosity about this winter chore parka. “But how much is it?”
“Twenty dollars? Are you kidding? Look how new and beautiful it it!” I tried to imagine the kind of person who would let such a treasure escape their winter coat rack. Had he or she lost it?
My husband delighted in my delight and we carried the northern red wool blanket coat to the cashier where he paid for my Christmas present with cash.
Dubbed my blanket coat, I once abused it with building adhesive while wearing it to finish our house in mid-winter. At my dismay, my husband took it to the cleaners and had them make it like new. Another year, when the moths were plaguing us, my anorak served up meals and got holey for the sacrifice. I took it to a tailor who expertly sewed up the holes to non-existence.
My big red has been a safe bright place to belong every winter of my life since.
Twenty dollars and twenty years later remind me that love can come from the best of relationships and the shallowest of pockets.
Gifts should make land, you know?
Why give an non-memorable gift? Why buy anything that isn’t a landmark for practicality and spreading good humor? Over the years, I’ve had other winter coats, more elegant ones, and others I don’t remember. I’ve given coats to charity, and perhaps a recipient feels the way I did at the sight of her “new” coat.
My red blanket coat was pulled over my shoulders again at the beginning of this winter’s frigid temperatures. I smiled at the perfect weight of it. I always do when it occurs to me how rich I am.
Great gifts and holiday celebrations are not measured by easy commodities. Sometimes they are recycled gifts. Sometimes they are surprises. And, sometimes, they are a day late of Christmas.
Lynn Byk is the author of Mister B: Living with a 98-Year-Old Rocket Scientist, a memoir.