Christmas lemons

One of the hardest lessons to learn about Christmas or holiday gifts is that the focus needs to be on the other person. It’s always easier to think about what we want to give the person, rather than what the person really wants.

I have been given some lemons for presents down through the years – and probably have given my share of duds too.

When I was about 10 years old I really wanted an electric train. Other kids wanted toy trucks or BB guns, but my wish was for a train. My parents always gave me an argument, but there was not doubt in my mind that Santa had taken my call and was working on it.

On Christmas day that year I rushed downstairs to look under the tree and, sure enough, I saw the long cardboard box that I had been wishing for. I ran upstairs and woke up my parents. “I got my train. I got my train,” I repeated.

My father said, “You did?”

My mother looked at my father. “I thought you said….”

I ran downstairs and tore open the box. Ugh, a tool box! There was the plastic pliers. And there, the wooden screwdriver. What a letdown.

Half a century has passed since that day. You would think that I could put that behind me now, but no, the disappointment is still there, tempered by the realization that I have gotten many hundreds of wonderful presents since.

More recently, a relative sent me an unusual Christmas present, probably the all-time lemon – a huge, white plaster map (of California, for some reason) that she had already started to paint and then stopped. She also sent me along some paints, in case I wanted to finish the job. Big question mark here.

If you really want to know what to get someone, you have to listen to what they are saying and put aside your own feelings.

Sometimes they don’t even know what they want. Then, you have to pay particular attention to what they are doing and how they are acting. This is the more difficult, but infinitely more rewarding, part – trying to figure out what they themselves don’t fully understand.

Half of Christmas is about love and appreciation, but the other half is about diplomacy. Avoiding the embarrassing moment gets complicated. Some years ago my wife and I got my father-in-law an electric knife. Later, my mother-in-law told me, “He sure loves his electric knife.” I felt gratified.

Years later, they got me a similar electric knife. When I asked him if he still used his, he seemed perplexed.

“Oh, we threw that thing out years ago,” he said, apparently forgetting that it had been a present from us. “I don’t believe in them.”

Another embarrassing moment is when you open up that gift that you know you would never in a thousand years be caught using. Your mind is saying, “Hmmm, what the devil am I going to do with this thing?” But you find your lips saying, “Oh, isn’t this an interesting gift.”

In the final analysis, it’s all relative. Today’s DVD player is tomorrow’s Rubic’s Cube. Just go with it.

We know Christmas has flaws, but what makes it the best holiday is that we get a chance to tell each other how we feel about them without having them look at us like we’re crazy. So go with it. Get embarrassed.