The intangible gifts of Christmas

Some evening between now and Dec. 24, I have a seasonal date with domesticity. I'll set up the ironing board, turn the iron dial to Linen, put on a CD of the "Messiah," and begin a mundane but pleasurable task: ironing yards and yards of a damask cloth that will grace our Christmas dining table.

As the iron sweeps rhythmically over the damp cloth, little puffs of steam rise, along with little puffs of memories. This annual reverie of Christmases past recalls other holiday tables the cloth has covered as it made its way from my grandparents' home to my parents' to ours. It's a chance to consider the intangible gifts of Christmas passed along from generation to generation. In this case, it's the gift of hospitality, symbolized by the tablecloth.

Who can say how many family members and friends have come together around this shiny damask over the decades, or how much conversation and laughter they have shared? The word family is stitched invisibly along its length.

It's also a reminder that the best Christmas memories often have little to do with presents under the tree - though don't tell that to the merchants hoping to ring up an estimated $220 billion in sales this season.

As the snowy fabric spills over the ironing board, I think of another cherished holiday legacy: the gift of culinary traditions. Our recipe box holds my mother's Christmas favorites, handwritten on 3-by-5-inch cards in her neat script: Cranberry Pudding, Spritz Cookies, Snow Drops, Cranberry Bread. Nothin' says lovin' like something from the oven, according to Pillsbury, and for most of us, Mom's (or Dad's) holiday cooking says it best.

In the living room, my father's Christmas songbook in the piano bench offers another holiday legacy: music.

To flip through pages of traditional carols, along with sheet music for popular favorites, is to recall Christmas Eve sessions around the piano, singing everything from "Silent Night" to "Winter Wonderland." Never mind if we were sometimes off-key; it's the family spirit that counts.

And then there's the all-important legacy of charitable giving, passed down by parental example. No holiday shopping outing as a child was complete until we had made a donation, however small, to the red Salvation Army kettle, or placed a small toy in a Toys for Tots barrel. The kettles and barrels offered visible evidence that other families needed help.

Now that Target and some shopping centers are banning red kettles, how do children learn about this kind of sharing?

Finally, there's the legacy of the family Christmas tree itself. Humble or grand, a Christmas tree is an act of generosity - time-consuming and often messy, but irreplaceable as a conveyer of traditions. (Memo to grandparents everywhere: Be careful about the traditions you jettison. If you do give up trees, offer your ornaments to your children and grandchildren. How I wish I had an ornament from each of my grandmothers' trees to hang on our own.)

As the final wrinkles disappear from the tablecloth and I turn off the iron, I know that damask is probably an endangered species: too much work for a permanent-press era. No matter. It's not the fabric that counts, but the act of gathering around the table, reaffirming connections and a seasonal truth:

Long after the gifts under the tree are used up, worn out, outgrown, or given away, the unwrappable holiday offerings - hospitality, favorite recipes, music, charity, and trees - will go on giving.

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