Features + Happy Holidays

To Give and Receive: Happy Holidays!

I am typically not a Christmas-y person.  In fact, more than one co-worker has referred to me as Ms. Scrooge over the years.  But this season, I’m suddenly in the holiday spirit.

I caught myself humming Christmas music this morning, and telling K we needed to go buy more decorations.  We’re going to a cookie swap on Sunday and I can barely contain myself.  #whothehellami  Maybe, after a rough and tumultuous 2017, we all just need some holiday spirit.

Whatever the cause, I wanted to share more of the joy of the holidays this season.  As I’ve mentioned before, I flipping love giving gifts.  I love it way more than receiving gifts.  There is nothing like the moment when you know you’ve gotten someone the perfect present, except the moment when they open it and for just a few minutes feel like someone gets them.

So I started asking my friends, “What’s the best gift you’ve ever received, and what’s the best gift you’ve ever given?”  The answers were so wonderful, I decided to turn them into a blog feature, starting with my own answers.

My brother, Ryan, and I are almost six years apart in age, so we didn’t spend much time together growing up.  When I moved to D.C., I was 22, and he was a high-school sophomore.  That first year in D.C. was so hard — the culture shock, the work hours, the bad weather.  I wanted to come home almost every day.  So when I traveled to my grandparents for Christmas that year, I was really in need of some family time.

Ryan and I didn’t usually exchange gifts.  We weren’t particularly close, and neither of us had much money.  But that year, after all the presents were passed out, Ryan reached in his pocket and pulled out a tiny box for me.

I was so touched that I was tearing up before I even opened it.  I couldn’t believe he had bought me a gift, and wrapped it.  And there inside…a lump of coal.

I laughed so hard.  In fact, my whole family was laughing so hard that we could barely breathe.  It was the perfect gift because it was perfectly him.  My bratty baby brother had given me a lump of coal.  I still have it.  I’ll probably always have it.

My Dad is one of those people that you.cannot.flipping.shop.for.  Nothing is right.  Nothing is what he wanted.  If he wanted that, he’d just go out and buy it himself.  So unless there are keys to a Shelby Mustang in that shoebox, he’s not interested.

It’s not that he’s trying to be ungrateful (though he totally is being ungrateful), it’s just that in the moment before you open up a present, there’s so much hope.  Hope that you’ll see the gift and think, “This is exactly what I wanted.”  And that, in that moment, you’ll feel like the giver really knows you.  Because “hard to shop for” people don’t want gift cards, or vanilla-scented candles, or slipper socks.  They just want a thoughtful gift that says, “I love you, and I get you.”

How do I know?  Because I’m the same way.

When I was a child, my Dad had a chess set from the Franklin Mint where the figures were generals from the Civil War.  He’d mentioned once there was another chess set featuring the Battle of Waterloo, and that he wished that he had the pair.  So one Christmas, after years of Barnes & Noble gift cards, I decided to track that chess set down.

I have never been so excited to give a gift in my life.  I knew from the moment I found it that this gift was perfect.  I mailed it to my grandparents house, and was calling every day to see if it arrived.  Finally, after like a week, my Grandma Carol called to tell me that it was there and “I could stop calling, now.”

Christmas Eve rolled around and it was time to open presents.  Everyone was in my Grandma’s living room with a small pile of gifts in front of them, and our tradition was that we went around the circle, each opening one at a time.  I was so excited, I demanded he open the chess set first, but my Grandma insisted we do “the big presents last.”  So there I was bursting at the seams for like an hour waiting for him to open it.

Finally, we’re all down to the last gift, and my Dad is looking positively dejected.  He’d gotten a sweater, some slippers, a book, the usual “why can’t you be easier to shop for” gifts.  So when he broke out his pocket knife to open my gift his face read, “Let’s get this over with.”  But as he cut back the cardboard and bubble wrap, his expression changed from frustration to confusion to utter and complete shock.

For five minutes, he just sat there with the chess set out on the table in front of him, staring at it.  Suddenly, my Grandma shouted in her Minnesota accent, “Well, do you like it?!”  And he looked right at me, completely dumbfounded, and said, “I love it.”

{image found here}



  1. Jess says:

    In 2011 we adopted two kids from Africa and three weeks after they came home our surprise fifth child was born…for Christmas that year my husband got me a kindle. I was so touched I cried. Over technology. It doesn’t sound like something to get sappy over, but my love language is gifts and this has always been a struggle for my husband. My favorite thing in the world is to read, I regularly read 100+ books a year. And that gift at that time said he totally got me.

    November 28, 2017/Reply
  2. thb says:

    Great post! Has this reader thinking.

    November 28, 2017/Reply
  3. JJC says:

    I am a bit of a scrooge this yea, so thanks for sharing two special stories!!!!

    November 28, 2017/Reply
  4. Nadia says:

    Abra, I never write comments but I have to say, I absolutely LOVED this post! And I’m glad you’re getting into the holiday spirit this year 🙂 Hopefully all your gifts knock it out of the park this year!

    November 28, 2017/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Damnedest thing, about two years ago, my family decided to stop doing gifts and give the money to charity. So now I have to save all my mojo for their birthdays.

      November 28, 2017/Reply
  5. Jtm says:

    Growing up we spent Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle’s house and every single year the cousins played chess on their franklin mint civil war set. I had completely forgotten about that set until I read this post.

    November 28, 2017/Reply
  6. Caitlin says:

    I find myself giving gifts before Christmas day because I’m so excited when I find the *perfect* gift. Restraint is not my forte 🙂

    November 29, 2017/Reply
  7. Jessica says:

    Abra, the story about your dad just made my eyes tear up. My dad is exactly the same way, but this year I think I’m finally going to have my “Battle of Waterloo Chess Set Moment.” My dad is a Harley Davidson fanatic and I found a framed set of patent drawings from some of the original Harley Davidson motorcycle patents. I can’t wait for him to open them!

    November 29, 2017/Reply
    • Belle says:


      November 29, 2017/Reply
  8. Jes says:

    This is wonderful.

    November 29, 2017/Reply
  9. Lynn says:

    This is such a great post! Definitely needed this warm touching post that hits us in the chest after the last year we’ve had. Thank you so much

    November 29, 2017/Reply
  10. Kathleen H Lisson says:

    I love the chess set story! Great gift!

    November 30, 2017/Reply
  11. LG says:

    Loved this post so much Abra! While I’m addicted to blogger gift guides, this got me to really think. Like you, I’m a bit of a grinch and start counting down to January as soon as the first christmas song hits the air, but this post captured the true spirit beautifully.

    November 30, 2017/Reply
  12. Meg says:

    My husband and I couldn’t afford a honeymoon when we got married so instead we saved and saved for two years until we finally planned a trip to visit a friend in Southeast Asia, with a long layover in Australia. When he finally booked the tickets I was a little bummed, I had studied French for years and years and had always dreamed to go to Paris. (But I was still excited to visit our friend.)

    On Christmas, a few weeks before we were set to leave, I opened a huge box from my husband filled with guide books for Paris. He looked at me and told me that the itinerary he had printed me for our flight was fake: our week-long layover was for Paris 🙂

    November 30, 2017/Reply