by Jan on December 23, 2022


Mrs. Garrison was my third-grade teacher, who more than once held up her stub and warned us never to stick our hands into an electric mixer while it was running. I learned many things we should and shouldn’t do, adhering to some and violating many. I embarked upon the latter this particular year, a secret and empowering Christmas tradition. Peeking, snooping, unwrapping, rewrapping, and going to any measure to get a pre-Christmas viewing of my presents. 

Home from school one day, I called out to Mother. No answer. In pursuit, I opened the door to my parent’s bedroom, and right there, laid out in an orderly fashion on their bed, I saw them. Beautifully crafted hand-knit clothes for my Barbie made by Mother. A blue overcoat and matching hat, a white dress with a mustard-colored belt and matching scarf, black capris, and a striped top. It was all so overwhelmingly breathtaking. I knew immediately I should not see these. Still, I could not tear my gaze away, and when Mother rushed in, she yelped and thrust them into her closet and told me that I would no longer be receiving those as Christmas gifts! I wailed and explained it was an accident! “We’ll wait and see.” That parental response was often given when they didn’t know what else to say.

My parents’ bedroom held secrets: shiny things and paraphernalia hidden in drawers. I was always curious and once pulled the top off Mother’s perfume bottle for a smell. The aroma was intoxicating, so I drank it. I choked, sputtered, cried, and my tongue burned for hours. But that did not deter me from snooping. Mother’s side of the closet held wondrous mysteries that enticed my curiosities and induced many unconfessed iniquities. Not only was her side of the closet filled with unwrapped gifts, but also that confusing not-so-well-hidden book on sex with alarming pictures. All were stashed amongst well-worn lingerie scented with familiar faded fragrances. My dad’s side of the closet smelled like cheese.

The wardrobe in Narnia’s paled compared to Mother’s closet, and it became my Adventureland. Every Christmas season, I knew what I was getting beforehand, and I also conducted the pre-peek gift ritual on my siblings’ gifts. Waiting for opportune moments, I would sneak into the bedroom exhilarated with the notion of conquering the forbidden, and ever so quietly dig out from the closet, unwrap, rewrap and shuffle through the “better be good, better watch out” gifts from our beloved Santa. It had not occurred to me why Santa would hide the presents in Mother’s closet. When I could not get to the closet for my Pre Un-Wrap, I became skilled at conducting my Christmas ritual with the wrapped gifts under the tree. With no one in the room, I not only surreptitiously opened the gifts but often took them out, played with them, and carefully rewrapped them, placing them back in the exact position. I relished the secret power of getting away with something. 

On my thirteenth birthday, I was caught off guard as I had neglected my pre-peek and opened a hideous gift. But, like most young adolescent girls, I existed in the center of my universe. So when I came upstairs for breakfast the morning of my birthday, I expected birthday salutations but instead was greeted with, “You want cornflakes or cheerios?” I waited all day for some acknowledgment on my special day, and when none came, I surmised a surprise party was in the planning. Of course! That would explain all the commotion in our home that day, regardless of my birthday falling on New Year’s Eve, and my parents were deep in preparation for that evening’s church’s annual New Years’ Eve Potluck and Prayer Party.

I figured my surprise party would be sprung on me before the church potluck or maybe at the church party so everyone could celebrate! But, as the late afternoon wore on and we were dressing for our evening out, my spirit sank. I entered my mother’s room. She was rushed and half-dressed. Seeing the forlorn look on my face, she wailed, “Oh, Janine! We forgot about your birthday!” She pulled out a wrapped gift from behind her dresser (an undiscovered hiding place) and hurriedly handed it to me as she continued to dress. I looked at the present, a bit stunned. It was the right size for the painting easel I had asked for but was too light in weight. (I needed an easel as I had become quite skilled at painting Holly Hobby on old roof shingles.) As I opened the cardless gift, Mother returned to her vanity, sat, and continued to apply her Jean Nate and Pearl Essence Avon lipstick. I gasped as I lifted the ugliest empire-waisted puce-colored bathrobe out of the box, something my grandmother would wear. Mother saw the disappointment on my face and broke into sobs, and as she cried, I felt guilty and obliged to make her feel better. So, I put the robe on, pasted on a big smile, and said thank you! It looks better on than in the box. But singing Auld Lang Syne at midnight that night felt more like a dirge. 

I did get those Barbie clothes for Christmas, and I did get that easel for my eighth-grade graduation, and I got almost everything I ever asked for. In time my gift-pre-peek ceased, but it was well into adulthood when I realized there was a reason for my peeking, unwrapping, and rewrapping of presents. I needed to prepare myself as I did not want to show disappointment over crappy gifts. So instead, I practiced with smiles and a happy face because my parents often felt bad when I felt bad, and I didn’t want to carry that burden to make them feel better. It was all an act of love, really, and only for their best interests…

Be it a Christmas present, birthday, or other gifts, may the joy of being in the heart and intention of another’s thoughts and affection swaddle you with delight and joy. 

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