In Praise of Humble Gifts


Christmas will be forever preserved in my memory as a pure celebration of consumerism—an unadulterated binge of gifts, gifts and stockings full of even more gifts. Until it was taken away, Christmas was probably my favorite day of the year.

I’m Jewish, but my grandparents in Los Angeles celebrated Christmas. They did it in a strictly secular way—a nice Jewish Christmas. The holiday was all about Santa at the mall and wide-eyed visits to the toy store. I remember a pile of presents sitting on the living room floor, their shapes and sizes presenting such a tantalizing mystery that I would lie awake on Christmas Eve puzzling over the bounty hidden within. Morning would eventually arrive and quickly unravel in a blur of ribbons and gilded paper and complicated toys, like Nerf rockets, Star Wars light sabers and model trains. I took the glut for granted, until I was 5 and my parents decided to raise me more Jewish. That was the end of Christmas, and the beginning of Chanukah gifts like warm socks … and books.

I never would have expected it then, but it’s the memories of those books that remain years later. They’re not as bright and exhilarating as a brand-new water rocket streaming into the blue. But they’re deeper. The feeling of unwrapping a Hardy Boys mystery, cracking it open and noticing the first crease form along it’s blue spine. Meeting “Boo” Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Surviving the long road with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. And sharing the secret that childhood can be painful with Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders and Gene Forrester in A Separate Peace.

At first, I mourned the loss of a big blowout Christmas and the bounty of battery-required gizmos that whizzed and beeped. But I grew up and learned to appreciate the delayed gratification of books, these almost mystical objects that stoked my imagination.

And there’s a lesson here, now that Americans of all stripes are being forced to downsize their holidays this year. There’s no need to trade in the Christmas tree for a menorah and gift wrapped socks, but still, this is a time for humble gifts, and there’s none better than the right book. And, in this issue, a few Texas books to consider. Joe Lansdale’s latest yarn, Vanilla Ride, for your loved ones who enjoy a thriller with a brain. Or Lit, Mary Karr’s third memoir, another poetic reflection on life’s obstacles from the author of The Liar’s Club. A book may not be the most dazzling gift, and it might take a while to sink in. But when it does, it won’t be forgotten.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST