The ultimate Christmas gift: celebrating life

The moment I uttered the words I knew they sounded silly: “What do you get the girl who has everything?”

Nothing, of course, suggests common sense. But the Pier 1 employee fielding my question saw I wasn’t letting that pesky force stand in my way, as I milled through paper lanterns, artificial apples and $3 bags of “mini river stones.”

She suggested the very thing I had sworn off, a bottle of wine, then pointed out a $22 walnut photo tray. This intrigued me: For someone with more pictures than walls, here was a new place to stuff snapshots.

I knew I was in a predicament, shopping for a friend who filled an entire bookshelf with Williams-Sonoma cookbooks. Years later not a dab of vegetable oil has stained their pages.

I probably should’ve flipped through Sky Mall, the airplane magazine that showcases the weirdest stuff you never knew you needed (and can’t afford), such as an Electronic Feng Shui Compass ($159.99). Online you can choose from 44 alarm clocks – ones with MLB and NFL scores, ones built into robots and drum sets, etc.

It got me thinking about the gifts we give – the things we can wrap, tape and tie, and the intangibles that mean the most. It seems we’re beginning to make that distinction, a hard-won lesson of the recession’s tail-end. A Consumer Reports holiday shopping poll finds that Americans planned to cut back on spending but expect no subsequent drop in yuletide cheer. Sixty five percent of us planned to curb holiday expenses, while 87 percent await a Christmas that is “as happy or happier than last year.”

Perhaps we’re returning to the origin of the word “gift,” which is Middle English for “talent.” It pertains to a person’s capacities, not her funds.

Looking back on 2009, I remember the gifts that took time, not twenties. The neighbor who mowed my lawn. The Saturday morning Mom cleaned my house, readying it for company. Hugs from grandparents, voicemails I saved, e-mails I printed. And tucked in my journal, a stack of four thank-you notes from my soon-to-be sister-in-law, Jodie. “Thank you for the cutting board,” one reads. “But thank you especially for just being the wonderful person that you are.”

When Jodie’s dad, Denis, died last month, we were devastated. The morning of his funeral, between Ave Maria and Taps, our grief was heavy. Then we embarked on a tour of Busch Stadium, home of Denis’ beloved St. Louis Cardinals. As a teen Denis had worked as a Cardinals change boy and he later got his cousin Mickey a job there. Fifty four years later, Mickey is now the manager of stadium operations, and he led our tour.

We stepped out of the dugout and onto the field, a Technicolor scene: green grass, red cardinals, silver Arch and blue sky. It was one of those moments when heaven hugs earth. We all could feel Denis beaming down on us.

Mickey gave us an incredible gift that day: a deeper connection to Denis. We will cherish it with each passing year. That is the ultimate Christmas gift, begun by Mary’s brave yes: to accept life, nurture it and honor it.

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. Email her at

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.