The best presents offer the recipient a jolt of recognition, the feeling of being loved, known, and surprised all at once. In advance of the holiday season, we asked Globe writers, contributors, and readers about the best — or worst, and therefore also kind of best — gifts they’ve gotten or given. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the essays we received were less about gifts than about the people who gave them.
The year was 2013, and my younger brother Seyi gave me the worst gift I have ever received: a pair of rare, virtually impossible-to-come-by Reebok sneakers. The Questions, Allen Iverson’s signature shoe! A more emotionally evolved person would recognize this as an expression of love. Proof that my little brother not only looked up to me, but knew me well enough to find something I desperately coveted.
Alas, I am not that person. The nerve of that brat! The absolute chutzpah! I had given him a pair of socks. And thus with his gift, he had done what I knew in my two-sizes-too-small heart was his true purpose. He had shamed me in front of our entire family. Made me look the cheap, callous chump, while he was feted by our two older siblings and parents as a champ.
I still have those shoes. They are in pristine condition. I have never worn them. They serve as a reminder to never give a cheap gift like socks, and to never ever, ever, ever . . . underestimate the guile and cunning of a younger sibling.
I come from a large family: seven kids — two boys and five girls — and not a bad gift giver among us. This year, however, when my father turned 90, we drew a blank. None of us had a single decent idea.
So, instead of a gift, we decided to come together in our hometown just to be with him.
My father is an unusually quiet man who raised louder-than-average children; we’ve been shushed by strangers more than once in restaurants.
So, when we’re all together, he’ll sit quietly as the rest of us shout over one another to be heard and then add a comment or two when the mood strikes him.
We gathered at my brother’s house with a cake and a well-stocked bar. At some point, one of my sisters suggested we play some of my father’s favorite music. These were classic tunes from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, songs we knew by heart. When we were young, he would blast them in the house, quieting us to point out favorite passages and to “conduct” when the music swelled.
At some point, a Burt Bacharach tune, “The Look of Love,” came on. The song’s slow, sad beginning, accompanied by delicate piano, was once on heavy rotation in our house. A minute or so into the song, I noticed that one of my sisters — long assumed to be Dad’s favorite — was holding his hand tightly and together, eyes closed and smiling, they were conducting and singing. Gradually, the rest of us stopped talking and joined in, overwhelming Dusty Springfield’s breathy vocals.
Driving home the next day, it occurred to me that my dad probably got exactly what he wanted on his birthday. His seven rowdy kids, making their usual racket.
You know the relationship is in trouble when you’ve been talking about getting married . . . and your Christmas gift is Ron Popeil’s Showtime Rotisserie Oven. “Just set it and forget it.”
When I was growing up, my sisters and I would scan the Sears holiday catalog every year for presents we wanted from Santa: dollhouses, stuffed animals, Barbies. One year, when I was 5 or 6, I fixated on a ventriloquist dummy named Charlie McCarthy. I was enamored. Charlie was snappy: He wore a black tuxedo, top hat, and monocle. No other dolls wear monocles!
That Christmas, after my twin sister opened her “My Size Princess Barbie,” with her waterfall of blond hair, my parents excitedly announced there was still one I hadn’t unwrapped.
The box was large, and I tore it open. Inside, I found Charlie staring back at me, smiling with his bright red lips, like he’d tasted blood and enjoyed it. I screamed and burst into tears. From a closet in the basement, Charlie haunted me all the years of my childhood.
I was 9 years old, and there was exactly one thing on the Christmas list I handed my grandma: Pokémon sheets. We didn’t have much, but when I put something on my list, she found a way to deliver.
Fast-forward to Christmas day 1999, I’m staring at a sheet-shaped package with Pokémon wrapping paper. Yes. I just know it’s the sheets. But imagine my surprise when, instead of the Pokémon sheets I had been expecting for weeks, I was holding a pack of sheets with characters from the then-brand-new animated show Digimon. Not the same.
But my grandma was beaming at me, with the same smile she gave me on the weekends when I would stay with her and we’d watch The Mummy or Beetlejuice on repeat — so even at 9, masking my disappointment wasn’t so hard.
I never found out if my grandma knew I was faking my happiness that day. But from the way she smiled at me when I stayed the night at her house, watching the same movies over and over again, I always knew exactly how she felt about me.
My dad was very good at buying very ugly jewelry.
He meant so well, and you could tell just by looking at the gifts he picked out for me and my sister each holiday. It was always some piece of loud costume jewelry — various heart-shaped necklaces, candy-colored stones, shining star pendants. You could always see his intention, which was so sweet. I love my daughter, so here is a heart necklace! She likes colors, and she’s a star!
Though the resulting piece might look tacky, my sister and I found it incredibly endearing. We love it, is what we’d tell him. We love you, is what we meant.
Our dad died 10 years ago, but we’ve carried on his tradition — in our own fashion. Each holiday season, we each go on a quest to find a thoughtful-yet-hideous piece of costume jewelry to give to the other. We comb through flea markets, thrift stores, and malls for something that gets some kernel of truth about the other right, but so much else wrong.
A rhinestone jaguar pendant? Yes, I’ve got one. (Because I like cats.)
A blingy, red-apple brooch? My sister has one of those. (Because she loved living in New York.)
Some families exchange ornaments each year. We go straight for laughs. Because while my dad may not have had the best taste in jewelry, he did have a terrific sense of humor. It was one of our favorite things about him, and it keeps on giving, year after year.
I almost missed her, nestled between green and white brushstrokes that, I was told, were supposed to represent trees. “Is that an eye?”
It was, replied Teddy: my first ex, my favorite ex, who somehow knew the perfect gift to fix what had been an otherwise horrible 20th birthday. A morning of weeping about the inevitability of aging had been followed by failed attempts to find Jamaican food in Paris; there were — surprise — not too many other Jamaicans in Paris.
But now, here we were in his closet of an apartment in Ménilmontant, and the eye on the back of my new denim jacket was watching me, coyly, almost winking in delight. I smiled back at her.
“How did you find this?” I asked, and marveled at the Teddy-ness of his reply. Of course he secretly measured my other jackets while I was in the shower; of course he found this one in a thrift shop; of course he took it to the fifth floor of the art collective down the street and had the artist paint my favorite color — komorebi, a Japanese word for sunlight leaking through leaves — on the back. And, of course, the artist managed to sneak a tiny portrait of me peeking out behind the branches.
People say you shouldn’t keep presents from your exes, but I disagree. I want to remember everything — every little detail of that gift — and that day.
“I love you,” I said. “And I love her.”
And I did, and I do.
My now-husband gave me jumper cables the first Christmas we were together. It took me some time to recognize the love and care behind this seemingly awful gift! (I wanted earrings.)
I was about 5 when Tio Zé — Uncle Joe in English — gave me a toy tool set for Christmas, complete with saw and wood block. I remember spending what seemed like hours thinking I was actually cutting the block. The illusion was achieved by two gears, one on the plastic saw and on the block, a wheel that when manipulated correctly produced a raspy sound and separated the block in two.
Sure, I wasn’t actually cutting it. But it’s hard to explain how strong it made me feel. Like I could make things happen. Like I could do anything.
With that saw and block, I became a one-kid construction crew. My hands built skyscrapers, houses, and schools.
The example of Tio Zé reinforced that message of possibility. His life has been incredible; from rural poverty in fascist Portugal to conscription and deployment to Mozambique to serve in a Colonial counterinsurgency against independence fighters — a fight he wanted no part in. Tio remained there after service, spending a large portion of the 1970s as a semi-pro soccer player. He even played the legendary Eusébio on the pitch from time to time.
He eventually left Mozambique with Tia Tina around the time it gained independence in 1975, shortly before moving to the United States. He helped keep a family of four afloat in New Bedford for the next five decades with jobs in construction, boatbuilding, and plumbing, electrician work, and more. Tio Zé didn’t just build things with his tools. He built a life.
—Kevin G. Andrade
“A poem? About what?” my 86-year-old grandmother asked.
“About what inspires you,” I replied.
“But I’m not a writer or a poet. You sure you don’t want something else?”
I might as well have been asking her for a Lamborghini for Christmas, that’s how over-the-top my request seemed. (Though, knowing her, she probably could’ve charmed her way behind the wheel of one.)
Gram and I always had a special bond, and while I spent a lot of time observing how she moved through life with such a sunny disposition, I wanted to soak in all the wisdom I could. So, as a writer, I thought it would be fun to pass the pen to the person I most admired.
A poem, though? Impossible.
She was flustered, but she did it, because I asked her to. In Gram’s poem, she talks about walks in the woods with her father. But the line that stuck with me was passed down from her mother: “Inspiration is important, but you also need confidence in yourself.”
Gram died in 2022, and in preparing her eulogy, I knew how she felt writing that poem, wanting to get it right. Although it’s been 11 years since I unwrapped it, it’s like I get the gift again every time I read it.
My boyfriend at the time, who loved to buy things from pop-up ads on Facebook, once gave me a sequin throw pillow with his face digitally printed onto it. Whenever I got annoyed with him, I could flip the sequins over to block out his face, like I was putting him in some sort of upholstery time-out.
I was 10, and I was in love. The object of my desire was the Raleigh Chopper, the coolest bicycle in the world, with its banana saddle, high-rise handlebars, and (be still my heart) crossbar-mounted stick shift. Conservatively, in the run-up to Christmas 1973, I asked for it about eight thousand times.
Judging by the bike-shaped bundle that appeared beside the tree one day, my campaign of terror had been a success. But then, on Christmas morning, my dreams butted up against life. There before me was a used, baby-blue Budgie — a cheaper, way-too-small version of the original. “Nice Budgie,” the boys would remark as I trundled, chimp-like, around our housing project. “Tweet-tweet!”
But then, I’d grown used to receiving knockoff versions of must-have gifts: the equally hilarious Major Domo boots, for instance, in place of the must-have Doc Martens. But I always feigned cheerfulness as the wrapping paper settled. How else was I supposed to react? My mum was a single parent raising three kids, barely scraping by on welfare. She tried.
There was one Christmas in particular when Mum seemed to be going through some kind of breakdown. I would have been 6 or 7 at the time, so I had no idea what was going on, but I wanted to get something to cheer her up. Like, say, the postcard I’d spotted in our local corner shop: a grainy, bleak, black-and-white image depicting a random Italian church. Sold to the boy with the blue Budgie!
I still don’t know what I was thinking that day, but I do recall my mum’s response: She looked at the card, then put it down wordlessly. That was a memorable moment for me, a notable failure. It never occurred to me later to ask my mother how she felt about that ridiculous gift, or what was happening to make her so sad. I wish I had.
Shortly before my mother’s death last year, going through her stuff, I came across an answer of sorts. Amid the clutter was a small box of keepsakes: a tattered address book, a few photographs, jewelry. Also in the box, to my great surprise, was the postcard. She’d kept it for 50 years — not for the grainy church, I’m guessing, but for the scrawled inscription on the back: “To mum lots of love Chris xxx”
The Sony Walkman TPS-L2, which I got for Christmas in 1979, when I was 11 years old, was simultaneously glorious and terrible in its effects. It was the most magical, mind-enlarging mechanism ever to enter my possession, and a complete disaster for my relationship with reality.
First, the magic. Sitting in the living room, siblings and torn wrapping paper everywhere, I inserted my cassette of The Police’s Reggatta de Blanc — side two — placed the flimsy orange foam headphones over my ears, and pressed play. And with the silvery tickle of Stewart Copeland’s hi-hat at the beginning of “Walking On The Moon,” each delicate hit receding into space and then bouncing back, I was gone. I was inside the music. I stood up, and the music stayed with me. Andy Summers’s guitar, that reverb-ed-out “Walking On The Moon” chord, was a mercury slash across my brain. I went into another room. I went outside. The music stayed with me. Giant steps are what you take/ Walking on the moon . . . (And here’s something beautiful: “Walking On The Moon” was also the first song that my wife, 9 at the time, listened to on a Walkman.)
Now: the disaster. The Walkman is a cool little object, but it’s also a metaphysical milestone. It represents a crucial stage in our long retreat away from the world and into our heads, each of us into our privately controlled sound-sphere.
Since that “Walking On The Moon” moment, the texture of my regular outdoor life — plodding down the street, rumbling along the Green Line — has been, without music, unsatisfactory. If it’s not being soundtracked by Iron Maiden, in other words (or Bitches Brew, or whatever), it’s BORING.
So that’s what my Walkman did for me, or to me: I put the headphones on in 1979, basically, and I’ve never taken them off.
I had seen the commercials. And I had seen Jen R., with her perfectly puffed bangs, carry hers into our after-school program with the confidence of a girl in one of those commercials. I was 9, and I wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid.
“No,” my mother said. “Too expensive.”
Then, one Saturday morning while I was watching Saved by the Bell, she announced, “Alístate” — Get ready. “We’re going to see about a job, and if I get it, we can go to Toys ‘R’ Us.”
My mother worked as a housekeeper for several decades — after brief stints at the Converse factory and, later, a Boston police station. Once she had kids, though, it made sense to clean houses. She could bring us with her if we were sick. If she arrived five minutes late, it wasn’t the end of the world.
What did feel like the end of the world was whether or not I would get this doll.
We pulled up to the fancy tan house in my mother’s maroon station wagon. Always, I went silent at rich people’s homes, the places my mother cleaned. Each house was like a maze full of items I couldn’t touch: a glass coffee table, bearskin rugs, exotic art. An older white woman with dangly earrings and frosted highlights opened the door and welcomed us inside. She had lots of questions for me, each of which I answered politely. Then she asked if I wanted a Milano. A what? She set some out on a plate. Oh . . . cookies. I looked at my mother. She nodded.
After the sweetness faded, I followed my mother who followed the woman around the (to me, already clean) home. She pointed at the silver frames on the mantel, the corners of the lush carpet in the living room, and finally, the bathroom. She actually lifted the toilet seat and said, “Be sure to really get in there.” It hit me then, that my mother, who came to this country alone at the age of 18 from Guatemala and learned English and became a citizen, who bought a house and would put three daughters through college, who was now playing with her knuckles, works. Money, it turned out, was earned.
I have thought about this morning hundreds of times. How, after the interview, we drove to the toy store. As we walked down the wide aisle with the bright lights, I approached the row of dolls. A part of me is still staring, a permanent scent of Pledge in the air, unable to contain all that she’d given me that day.
—Jennifer De Leon
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