Essay On The Best Christmas Present Ever

The 2009 Holiday Gift Guide has suggestions for gifts from graphic novels to DVDs to theater tickets. What’s the best gift you’ve ever given or received — whether tangible or intangible? Why? What do you want to give this holiday season? What do you hope to receive?

Though The Times creates an annual roundup of gift suggestions in categories from cooking to travel to music, articles on holiday giving can also go beyond the material. This 2007 article from the Science Times looks at how giving can be a gift in itself:

Gift giving has long been a favorite subject for studies on human behavior, with psychologists, anthropologists, economists and marketers all weighing in. They have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift. Frustrated by crowds, traffic and commercialism, people can be tempted at this time of year to opt out of gift giving altogether. A 2005 survey showed that four out of five Americans think the holidays are too materialistic, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption.

But while it’s reasonable to cut back on spending during the holidays, psychologists say that banning the gift exchange with loved ones is not the best solution. People who refuse to accept or exchange gifts during the holidays, these experts say, may be missing out on an important connection with family and friends.

Students: Tell us about a wonderful gift you’ve given or received. Why was it so memorable? What do you most want to give or receive this year? Why?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment below. Please use only your first name. For privacy policy reasons, we will not publish student comments that include a last name.

Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.

Just in time for Christmas, author Ann Patchett is reminding readers that sometimes, the best yuletide present of all can be a simple story, the gift of the written word.

That’s the message of “How to Read a Christmas Story,” an essay in “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” Patchett’s just-released collection of nonfiction.

Patchett is the author of six novels and three works of nonfiction. She’s the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and she co-owns a bookstore in Nashville.

It’s a wonderful life in words – a life that was nurtured, in no small measure, by one eventful Christmas in Patchett’s childhood.

After her parents divorced, Patchett, her sister and her mother moved to Tennessee , leaving her father behind in California. The break-up made the holidays hard.

“I have never liked Christmas,” Patchett declares at the start of her essay. ”In my family, there were happy Thanksgivings and tolerable Easters, but Christmas was a holiday we failed at with real vigor.”

Part of the problem, as Patchett explains it, is that her father seldom knew what presents to give her.  But one Christmas Eve of her childhood, Patchett’s father read aloud to her, over the long-distance phone line, a short story he’d found in the newspaper. It was about a little girl who lives in an orphanage, where she receives a set of colored pencils as her only gift on Christmas Eve. They mean the world to her because she wants to be an artist. But the next morning, on Christmas Day, the girl gives her gift to a little girl camping nearby who’s even poorer than she is.

“I am certain this is the only time my father, or anyone else for that matter, ever read me a story over the phone,” Patchett tells readers. “There was no gift that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did.”

In sharing the story, Patchett’s father helped open her to the possibilities of what narrative can do. It was a critical step in her path toward becoming a writer.

“It was the shining star, the one thing I wanted to keep,” Patchett says of the story her father shared with her.

Patchett’s new book, in turn, is the Christmas gift she’s given to us.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  

(You can see the Monitor's full review of "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage" by Ann Patchett here.)


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