More Than Wrapping Paper 
and Colored Bows

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2019 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo of a pile of wropping paper and bows.

is a memoir and a true, biographical account of Christmas 1959—a tough season for my parents financially.
During that season I learned that Christmas magic is powerful, but the power in our hearts is even more magical. Our ability to love one another, to renew our faith and bring hope into our lives and the lives of others, are the greatest gifts to bestow and receive.

Christmas Eve afternoon Mom was preparing dinner while my brothers and I sat in the living room waiting for Dad to come home. As he rounded the corner and pulled into the driveway, he began frantically honking the horn of his pickup truck.

Mom! Mom!” I shouted. Come quick!”

What’s going on?” Mom asked, quickly wiping her hands on her apron and rushing towards us.

It’s Dad, and…and,” I stammered, “he’s got a Christmas tree tied to his truck!”

The tree was a welcome sight, for it had been a rough year for our family. The economy was in the doldrums, and Dad’s income had plummeted. We lived frugally and did our best to carry on acting as if nothing was wrong. Despite our best efforts, household expenses mounted. So when the holiday season approached, we had little food, no presents, and certainly no Christmas tree. One night I overheard my parents talking.

I’ve scrimped and saved as much as I could,” Mom said, “but I don’t know how we’ll afford Christmas this year.”

You needn’t worry yourself about Christmas,” Dad reassured her. “We’ll have enough for Christmas.

But HOW?” she said, her voice cracking.

Just wait and see,” was all he said. “Just wait and see.”

Waiting didn’t change things though. December brought an even scarcer pantry, no sign of a Christmas tree, and not a single present. In years past, the presents piled up under the tree, taking over the corner of the living room. Whenever Mom looked over where the Christmas tree usually stood, she sighed and warned us, “There won’t be much for Christmas this year. Try not to be disappointed.”

But I really want some Lincoln Logs,” my younger brother whined..

You might not be getting those,” my older brother said gently. “Remember, Mom said not to be disappointed.”

But then came Christmas Eve, and the truck, and the tree. We flung open the front door and scurried outside screaming, “It’s a Christmas tree…a real Christmas tree!” Dad threw the tree across his back, and we danced around him as he carried it inside.

Mom grabbed the Christmas decorations from the attic, and we spent the afternoon decorating. Soon, twilight fell, and the pale winter stars slid into their places. The wind slowly shifted to the north; the sky darkened; and snow as soft as sleep began falling. I breathed in the delicious aroma of Christmas Eve dinner and the fragrant pine smell of the evergreen branches now adorned with bright, shiny glass ornaments, twinkling lights, and hanging icicles.

After Christmas Eve dinner, Dad sat in his easy chair, and I climbed unto his lap begging, “Daddy, blow me some smoke rings! Please, Daddy, please!”

Dad always relaxed in his easy chair after dinner with a burning cigarette in his right hand and a cup of coffee in his left. I frequently climbed onto his lap, shared his coffee, and eagerly waited for him to blow smoke rings. Smoking was a given for men of his generation. So every Monday morning as he drove to work, Dad stopped at the convenience store and purchased his weekly supply of cigarettes—a carton of Camel Straights.

I remember watching him with fascination as he retrieved a cigarette from his shirt pocket, slowly bringing it to his mouth. Like a magician, he flipped open his cigarette lighter and waved the flame like a magic wand. “Abracadabra!” The end of the cigarette sizzled. He took a puff, tilted his head back, and blew a perfect ring toward the ceiling. I watched it get wider and wider then fade away.

Again!” I always said. Dad grinned and took another puff.

That Christmas Eve, I snuggled next to him hardly able to contain myself waiting for the smoke rings to begin. “Blow some smoke rings!” I insisted.

You know,” he said, patting his shirt pocket, “I left my cigarettes behind the seat of my truck. If you’ll get my cigarettes, I’ll blow you some smoke rings.”

I grabbed my jacket and rushed outside. Dark frost was in the air, and it nipped at my nose—my warm breath mingling with the crisp, cold air as it stung my cheeks. The chilling winter winds whistled—blowing, swirling, and spinning the snow in all directions making me feel as if I was walking in a Christmas snow globe.

Through the blinding snow, I found the door handle and yanked on it—its old, rusty hinges groaning like an old man. I opened the door and pulled back the seat and there—as if in a dream—were four carefully wrapped Christmas gifts with our names on them—Dave, Eddie, Sara, and Mom. I scooped them into my arms and charged back into the house.

Well, look what you found in my truck!” he exclaimed. “I saw Santa Claus on the way home, and he gave me your gifts. Merry Christmas!”

Minutes later the floor was covered in brightly colored Christmas wrapping paper. I was cradling the most beautiful doll I’d ever seen; Eddie was building with his Lincoln Logs; and Dave was traipsing about the living room in his new basketball sneakers.

Eddie with Lincoln Logs

Sara with doll

How were you able to buy a Christmas tree and all these presents?” Mom asked holding a new bottle of her favorite lavender perfume. “Santa can’t do all this work for free.”

Dad chuckled. “For the last few months I tossed my weekly cigarette money into a coffee can under the seat of my truck. It adds up!”

Tears filled my eyes as I thought about how much Dad loved us by willingly giving up his cigarettes so we could have Christmas that year. For the rest of my life, whenever I saw a Christmas tree, I could see the look on Mom’s face and the radiant smiles of my two brothers. Remembering brings back the same joy I felt sitting beside Dad on Christmas Eve and unwrapping my present. He gave me so much more than a doll that year. He gave me the best Christmas of my life in which I learned that Christmas is a magical time of year, one for sharing in gift giving and celebrating. The greatest gifts, however, are not those wrapped in fine papers or dressed in colorful bows. Our ability to sacrifice, to love one another, to renew our faith, and to bring hope into our lives and the lives of others, are the greatest of gifts to bestow and receive. These are the gifts given with an open heart, wrapped in the lovely ribbons of faith, hope, and love.

Contact Sara

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Sara's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher