A Christmas tradition that warms me still

Give me some ideas for Christmas," my mother said, beginning to nudge several weeks ago in a phone conversation "What would you like besides your flannel nightgown?"

If there ever was a gift-giving "given," it is the perennial flannel nightie wrapped in an oblong box marked "For Sue, Love Mom." One has appeared under the tree ever since I can remember, several sizes ago.

As a child, I expected it the way I expected Santa, if with less fervor: It was a part of what made Christmas Christmas. What's more, the oblong boxes with new flannel nightgowns kept on coming even after I knew that Santa did not. They have held a place under the tree through all of the joys, disappointments, and inevitable transformations attendant on childhood, coming of age, and adulthood.

In the cluttered aftermath of Christmas-morning unwrappings, the newest flannel nightgown has been laid alongside a rich and evolving array of companion gifts: a tabletop hockey set (my sister and I could make those little metal men fly with our opposing sets of knobs); footballs and baseball mitts; board games; new bikes, with and without training wheels; a sled; a little six-drawer maple desk; skis and parka; a backpack or two; a portable stereo.

As I matured, and my tantalizing pile of packages yielded maxi-skirts, granny dresses, and other fad clothes of the '60s, I knew the nightie would be there somewhere, too, softly folded in its place.

In my late teens, I went through a phase of scoffing at the tradition, rolling my eyes as I lifted the lid and beheld what struck me then to be the embodiment of all that was styleless. But come bedtime on a winter's night in upstate New York, I didn't waste much time pulling the thick, soft, fresh-smelling fabric over my head and tucking up my knees so that my feet could get in on a good thing, too.

When I went off to college, my Christmas gifts answered serious needs, and they eventually began to furnish and decorate my first home. Each year, Mom would begin in mid-November to ask what I wanted and needed, and I readily answered with suggestions and lists. "Oh, and a flannel nightgown," I sometimes added, just for the pleasure of stating the mutually acknowledged obvious.

And so, they kept coming, one each year - pink, blue, or green, ruffled or plain, as inevitable in their oblong boxes as daylight on Christmas morn.

I devote most of one dresser drawer to my accumulation of flannel nightgowns. But I never seem to have a serious excess. It's good to have backups when one is in the wash or on the line, and they do wear out. A few, barely used, have been donated to thrift shops. Others, well-worn, have helped to fill ragbags, resurfacing in faded swaths as polishing cloths, and emergency mop-up towels.

Like any tradition, this of the flannel nightgown has come to have a life of its own. We didn't even mention it half the time Mom and I talked about what I'd like for Christmas. Whatever else of greater glitz or interest comes my way, the nightgown will surely be among my gifts - short on style, long on history and warmth - it's a given.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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