Christmas Day encompasses so much activity that I struggle to separate all the key components: the birth of Christ, family gatherings, and the gifts we share with one another. The gifts, though, are often the most memorable, especially when the religious celebrations and the family gatherings begin to merge in our minds; by contrast, certain gifts remind us of a specific time and place in our lives. As I look back at the numerous gifts I have received, I recall my top ten, those that stir up memories and stories.
10. My Kyle Rote Jersey. As a boy of about nine or ten, I was a New York Giants football fan, and number 44 was my favorite player. On a team that included superstars like Frank Gifford, Y.A. Tittle, and Sam Huff among others, Rote was more of a humble role player, but this flanker/receiver was the guy I watched during every play. Thus, I was so happy when I found that jersey under our Christmas tree. No, it was nothing like the $100, perfect NFL replica jerseys they sell today; instead, my mother had purchased the dark blue, long-sleeved tee-shirt and ironed on the white letters “Rote” and the number “44,” and I wore that shirt almost daily. Thanks, Mom.
9. Golf Clubs — Small and Big. During that same era but in a different year, I received my first golf club. My dad loved golf, and he played 18 holes every Sunday afternoon during the summer months and nine holes on Tuesday evenings after work. To encourage me to take up the game, Dad crafted a small driver for me — with my name on it — so I could hit wiffle balls in the back yard. Then, many years later, he gave me my own full set of clubs, a set he had won in a hole-in-one contest. Though I never loved golf as much as Dad, I still treasure those clubs and think of him when I occasionally play the game. Thanks, Dad.
8. My Adult Coloring Book. About five years ago, my wife, Barbara, endured a year or more of chemotherapy and other treatments as she successfully battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During that time, some friends from church asked Barbara if she wanted an adult coloring book to help her through her ordeal. “Honestly, I’m not that interested in coloring,” she told them, “but I think Jim might be.” As a result, this beautiful family, a family that was also dealing with a serious illness, actually gave me a coloring book and a set of colored pencils to help me deal with the struggles our family was facing at that time. Still today, when I color, the activity helps me to temporarily forget whatever’s on my mind and to focus on creating a balance of colors while staying within the lines of my situation. Thank you, dear friends.
7. A Book on How to Draw. Ever since my grade-school days, I have always been a doodler. Instead of taking notes on Latin declensions, I was always drawing pictures of Yankee Stadium or a Christmas tree — or even a Christmas tree at Yankee Stadium. When my daughters, Maria and Katrina, noticed my crude illustrations in the church bulletins during our Sunday services, they decided I needed to get better. Together with Barbara, they visited our local art supply store and purchased for me a book on “How to Draw,” along with all the appropriate pencils and erasers to help me refine my craft. Though my drawing ability really hasn’t improved much in the ensuing years, I still love to draw, and I have created a few cartoons that I, at least, feel are somewhat humorous. Thanks, girls.
6. My First Great Course. About ten years ago, I began to feel stagnant in my teaching and in my writing, and I considered returning to school. However, the thought of a long, drawn-out, part-time doctoral program felt overwhelming and time-consuming. I wanted something else, something more immediate and self-paced. Fortunately, I discovered The Great Courses, a company based in Virginia, that offers sets of video lectures from some of the finest college professors in the country. Barbara gave me my first course, “Building Great Sentences,” and I have purchased four additional courses since then. I love them. Thank you, Sweetheart.
5. My First Lego Set. When I was growing up in the 1960s, we didn’t have Legos. Rather, we built with wooden blocks or with Lincoln Logs or with Erector Sets. And quite honestly, I enjoyed my building years. When I got older, though, and saw my nephews playing with Legos, I must admit I was a little jealous. I wanted a set of my own. Fortunately, my daughters, who never cared much for Legos, came through for me again. When the Lego company began offering kits for adults, they bought me the Lincoln Memorial kit one year and followed that up with the White House kit a couple years later, a kit that I am still trying to complete. Like coloring and drawing, building allows me to relax when I get too worried or wound up about daily activities or the future. Thank you, Maria and Katrina.
4. My High-School Letter Sweater. I attended a Catholic high school, and as part of our uniform, we had to dress up every day with a shirt and tie and a green blazer with the school logo on the pocket. Quite honestly, I didn’t mind the uniform, but our school also allowed us to leave the blazer at home on Fridays if we had a letter sweater to wear instead. Letter sweaters were a big deal in our school, and when my older sister, Kathy, gave me one for Christmas during my junior year, I could not have been happier. I wore that sweater proudly every Friday for the rest of my high-school days, and I might even wear it to our 50th class reunion next summer. Thanks, Kath.
3. My First NFL Game. As evidenced by my Kyle Rote jersey, I have always enjoyed watching professional football on television, but for various reasons, I had never made it to a live game. Thus,, my wife and daughters decided that for my Christmas present for 2012, we should all attend a game together. By then, I had switched from being a Giants fan to a Jets fan — when Joe Namath joined the team back in 1965 — so we went to see the Jets play the San Diego Chargers on a blustery December 23rd. Since regular quarterback, Mark Sanchez, had been ineffective, we all hoped to see Tim Tebow at the helm of the offense, but Coach Rex Ryan decided to go with Greg McElroy that day, and we lost 27 to 17. Despite the cold and the loss, we all had a great time, a great and memorable family day. Thank you, Barbara, Maria, and Katrina.
2. Maria Christina. Our first daughter was born during the early evening of December 21st, just four days before Christmas. Since that day, I always told Maria and expressed to others that she was my best Christmas present ever. And that’s still true. No ordinary Christmas gift could ever compare to the birth of this beautiful girl, and no Father’s Day gift could ever compare to the subsequent birth of our second daughter, Katrina, who joined our family approximately two and a half years later. Barbara and I have been so blessed by our two children, and we thank God for them daily.
- The Baby Jesus. When I was really young, I remember our family had a beautiful, thick cardboard Advent calendar that stood on the floor in front of our Christmas tree. On day one of Advent, we folded down the perimeter outline of the stable and manger where Jesus was born. Then, on subsequent days, we folded down other parts of the scene — the animals, the shepherds, the wise men — until Mary and Joseph appeared on Christmas Eve, and the baby Jesus arrived the next morning. Thus, I have always been aware of “the reason for the season,” and each year I appreciate His arrival and His presence in my life more and more. Obviously, God the Father demonstrated His love for us when he gave us His one and only Son, so that we might enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven. That is no ordinary gift; Jesus is the best gift — ever. All we have to do is accept Him as our Savior and believe. Thank you, Lord.