The Christmas Present
By James Michener, published in Reader’s Digest in 1967.
When I was a boy of nine in the little town of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, I used to mow the lawn of Mrs Long, an elderly lady who lived across from the Presbyterian Church. She paid me very little for the chore, for she had not much money. But she did promise me, “When Christmas comes, I shall have a present for you.” I spent much time wondering what it would be. The boys I played with had baseball gloves and bicycles and ice skates, and I was so eager to acquire any one of these that I convinced myself that my benefactor intended choosing from among them.
“It would hardly be a baseball glove,” I reasoned with myself. “A woman like Mrs Long wouldn’t know much about baseball.” Since she was a frail little person, I also ruled out the bicycle, for how could she handle such a contraption?
On my last Saturday at work, Mrs Long said, “Now remember, because you’ve been a good boy all summer, at Christmas I’ll have a present waiting. You come to the door and collect it.” These words clinched it. Since she was going to have the present in her house, and since she herself would be handling it, unquestionably she was giving me a pair of ice skates.
I became so convinced of this that I could imagine myself upon the skates. As the cold days of November arrived and ice began to form on the ponds, I began to try my luck on the ice that would be sustaining me and my skates through the winter.
“Get away from that ice!” a man shouted. “It’s not strong enough yet.” But soon it would be.
As Christmas approached, it was with difficulty that I restrained myself from reporting to Mrs Long and demanding my present. Our family agreed that the first of December was too early for me to do this. “She may not have it wrapped yet,” someone argued, and this made sense.
On December 21, a cold snap froze all the ponds so that boys who already had ice skates were able to use them, and my longing to possess mine, even though I could not open the package for a few days, became overpowering. On December 22 I could restrain myself no longer. I marched down the street, presented myself at the door of the house whose lawn I had tended all summer, and said, “I’ve come for my present, Mrs Long.”
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, leading me into her parlour, its windows heavy with purple velvet. She sat me in a chair, disappeared to another room, and in a moment stood before me holding a package that under no conceivable circumstances could hold a baseball glove or a bicycle or even a pair of skates. I was painfully disappointed but so far as I can recall did not show it, because during the week, my advisers at home had warned repeatedly, “Whatever she has for you, take it graciously and say thank you.”
What she had was an ordinary parcel about 23 cm wide, 30 cm long, and less than a centimetre thick. As Mrs Long held it in her frail hands, curiosity replaced my initial disappointment, and when I lifted it from her, the extreme lightness of the gift quite captivated me. It weighed almost nothing.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’ll see on Christmas Day.”
I shook it. Nothing rattled, but I thought I did catch a sound of some sort – a quiet, muffled sound that was somehow familiar but unidentifiable. “What is it?” I asked again.
“A kind of magic,” Mrs Long said, and that was all.
Her words were enough to set my mind dancing with new possibilities, so that by the time I reached home, I had convinced myself that I held some great wonder. “She gave me a magician’s set. I’ll turn pitchers of milk into rabbits.”
How long the passage to Christmas was! There were other presents of normal dimension and weight. But Mrs Long’s box dominated all, for it had to do with magic.
On Christmas morning, before the sun was up, I had this box on my knees, tearing at the reused coloured string that bound it. Soon the wrapping paper was off and in my lap lay a flat box with its top hinged about halfway down.
With great excitement I opened the hinged lid to find inside a shimmering pile of ten flimsy sheets of black paper, each labelled in iridescent letters, “Carbon Paper Regal Premium”. Of the four words I knew only the second, and what it signified in this context I could not guess.
“Is it magic?” I asked.
Aunt Laura, who taught school, had the presence of mind to say, “It really is!” And she took two pieces of white paper, placed between them one of the black sheets from the box, and, with a hard pencil, wrote my name on the upper sheet. Then, removing it and the Carbon Paper Regal Premium, she handed me the second sheet, which her pencil had in no way touched.
There was my name! It was clean, and very dark, and well formed and as beautiful as Christmas Day itself.
I was enthralled! This was indeed magic of the greatest dimension. That a pencil could write on one piece of paper and mysteriously record on another was a miracle that was so gratifying to my childish mind that I can honestly say that in that one moment, in the dark of Christmas morning, I understood as much about printing and the duplication of words and the fundamental mystery of disseminating ideas as I have learned in the remaining half-century of my life.
I wrote and wrote, using up whole tablets until I had ground off the last shred of blackness from the ten sheets of carbon paper. It was the most enchanting Christmas present a boy like me could have had, infinitely more significant than a baseball glove or a pair of skates. It was exactly the present I needed, and it reached me at precisely that Christmas when I was best able to comprehend it.
I have received some pretty thundering Christmas presents since then but none that ever came close to the magnificence of this one. The average present merely gratifies a temporary yearning, as the ice skates would have done; the great present illuminates all the years of life that remain.
It was not until some years later that I realised that the ten sheets of Carbon Paper Regal Premium that Mrs Long gave me had cost her nothing. She had used them for her purposes and would normally have thrown them away, except that she had had the ingenuity to guess that a boy might profit from a present totally outside the realm of his ordinary experience.
I hope this year some boys and girls will receive, from thoughtful adults who really love them, gifts that will jolt them out of all they have known till now. It is such gifts and such experiences – usually costing little or nothing – that transform a life and lend it an impetus that may continue for decades.
Pennies from Heaven
By Julie Bain, published in Reader’s Digest in 2007.
My dad loved pennies, especially those with the elegant stalk of wheat curving around each side of the One Cent on the back. Those were the pennies he grew up with in Iowa during the Depression, and Lord knows he didn’t have many.
When I was a kid, Dad and I would go for long walks together. He was an athletic 1.9 metres, and I had to trot to keep up with him. Sometimes we’d spy coins along the way – a penny here, a dime there. Whenever I picked up a penny, he’d ask, “Is it a wheat?” It always thrilled him when we found one of those special coins produced from 1909 to 1958, the year of my birth. On one of these walks, he told me he often dreamed of finding coins. I was amazed. “I always have that dream too!” I told him. It was our secret connection.
Dad died in 2002. By then, I was living in New York, which can be exciting, or cold and heartless. One grey winter day, not long after his death, I was walking down Fifth Avenue, feeling bereft, and I glanced up and found myself in front of the First Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest churches in Manhattan. When I was a child, Dad had been a Presbyterian deacon, but I hadn’t attended in a long time. I decided to go.
Sunday morning, I was greeted warmly and ushered to a seat in the soaring old sanctuary. I opened the programme and saw that the first hymn was ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, Dad’s favourite, one we’d sung at his funeral. When the organ and choir began, I burst into tears.
After the service, I walked out the front doors, shook the pastor’s hand, stepped onto the sidewalk – and there was a penny. I stooped to pick it up and turned it over, and sure enough, it was a wheat. A 1944, a year my father was serving on a ship in the South Pacific.
That started it. Suddenly wheat pennies began turning up on the sidewalks everywhere. I got most of the important years: his birth year, my mum’s birth year, the year his mother died, the year he graduated from college, the war years, the year he met my mum, the year they got married, the year my sister was born. But alas, no 1958 penny – my year, the last year they were made.
Meanwhile I attended church pretty regularly, and along towards Christmas a year later, I decided I ought to join. The next Sunday, after the service, I was walking up Fifth Avenue and spotted a penny in the middle of an intersection. Oh, no way, I thought. It was a busy street; cabs were speeding by – should I risk it? I just had to get it.
A wheat! But the penny was worn, and I couldn’t read the date. When I got home, I took out my magnifying glass and tilted the copper surface to the light. There was my birthday.
As a journalist, I’m in a profession where scepticism is a necessary and honest virtue. But I found 21 wheat pennies on the streets of Manhattan in the year after my father died, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Last White Christmas
By Jo Ross, published in Reader’s Digest in 2009.
In the summer of 1977 I was in my early 20s and about to go up to Edinburgh to perform in a play on
the fringe. But three days before rehearsals were due to start, the director phoned to say that the play was off.
To ease my disappointment, he asked me if I’d like to work for Bing Crosby for a couple of weeks. The famous crooner was coming to London to record a Christmas Special at Elstree Studios. I gave a noncommittal answer and then forgot about it. All I wanted was a good mope.
Two hours later the phone rang and someone with an American accent asked to speak to Jo Ross.
“This is Bing Crosby.”
“Oh, stop it – it’s not even funny. Anyway, he’s been dead for years.”
Twenty toe-curlingly embarrassing minutes later I found myself employed as Mr Crosby’s ‘gofer’. My duties seemed to be remarkably light: take Mr Crosby to the set each morning, run errands for him, make sure his car was waiting for him at the end of the day.
I reported for duty in a dark green Mini Moke that I had borrowed from my boyfriend. It had long since lost its canvas sides and the petrol gauge did not work. It was a disgrace.
Elstree was huge. When I got there, the sound stage was being converted into the interior of a typical English manor house, with a drawing room the size of Westminster Abbey. In the rehearsal room, leaning against a piano, was a small, upright man with a pale blue trilby hat on the back of his head.
“Hi there,” said Bing Crosby. “How you doin’? Gonna show me round? Can you show me where to get coffee?”
“Certainly,” I replied. I hadn’t a clue where to get a coffee. Bing was very relaxed and chatty, and pretended not to notice that I was lost. Eventually we reached a junction in the corridor.
With a wry smile, Bing suggested that we turn left. “What d’you think? Shall we risk it?”
Pretty soon I was having a ball. Bing was undemanding – and rather shy. I thought he was adorable and was thrilled when one day he asked for a lift back to his hotel. Twenty minutes later we were chugging along in the Mini Moke, when suddenly the engine cut out. I hopped out and started looking pointlessly under the bonnet.
A voice from the front seat asked, “Could you have run out of gas?”
Of course. Bing and I stood by the side of the road waiting for someone to give us a lift to a petrol station.
Eventually, a little car heaving with children stopped. The driver, a middle-aged man, approached us, his eyes bulging.
“You… you… you…”
“Yep,” said Bing. “We’re out of gas. Can you give me a ride to a garage?”
“Me?… You?… Me… me… and you? Kids, out, get out… Get out of the car!”
Two minutes later I was standing by the road with four bewildered children, watching Bing Crosby disappear in a Ford Fiesta.
When the car returned with petrol, the fan insisted on pouring it into the tank. Then he bundled the now-furious children into the Fiesta and with a final “You… you…”, drove off.
Bing ended his Christmas Special, unsurprisingly, with ‘White Christmas’. The studio was packed for the recording. Bing asked to see me in the make-up room.
“Hey, Lefty,” he said, using the nickname he’d given me when he discovered I was a southpaw. “Write me out an idiot board, would you?”
“Yes, of course. What for?”
“ ‘White Christmas.’ ”
There was stunned silence in the make-up room. Could it be that Bing Crosby did not know the words? He explained that he needed a cue card because he had trouble remembering the verse at the very beginning. Somehow I found some large white cards and a marker pen. I scrawled out the first verse and took up my prearranged position under the piano.
As the band struck up, Bing looked down and began to sing these lines:
The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and plum trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills LA
He was about to continue with “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” when he faltered, took another look at the card and… stopped singing. The music cut out. Bing got down on his hands and knees and crawled under the piano. He took my hand and very quietly said, “There isn’t a plum tree in LA.”
Fearing one of us had lost the plot, I gripped his hand and said, “That’s a pity.”
A little less gently now, he stabbed at where I’d written the word “plum”. “It’s palm trees, palm trees, palm trees.”
It was awful. From my position under the piano I thought of what a useless gofer I’d been and how often I’d let Bing down, even forgetting to bring the clubs when he was playing golf. Yet he had always responded with humour and grace. Now he’d fluffed his lines – all because of me.
The rest of the day was a blur of sets being taken down and costumes packed up. People were saying their goodbyes, making plans for farewell drinks.
I wanted to say goodbye to Bring and to apologise, but I couldn’t find him. Feeling oddly empty and depressed, I wandered outside, thinking that I’d never see him again. Then I heard a familiar voice.
“Hey Lefty! Can you give me a ride?” There was Bing in the front seat of the Moke, one foot perched on the dashboard.
“Absolutely,” I said. “London?”
“Why not – shall we risk it?”
Five weeks later, Bing Crosby died of a heart attack while playing golf in Spain. He was 74 years old.