The night before the PTSA Holiday Boutique, which happens December 20, the lobby of the school is transformed with the help of elves into a Christmas wonderland. The jewelry table is especially elegant, the baubles and bangles displayed with all of the artistry of Lord & Taylor’s jewelry counter.
Clutching their Ziploc bags filled with dollar bills and quarters and gift tags hand-printed with the names of family members for whom they want to put something under the tree, the kids browse the tables, looking for that perfect gift. They are shrewd shoppers, these kids. My husband is usually the only dad volunteer so he helps out in the men’s section. He’ll suggest something: a book (“My dad just watches TV.”), a baseball DVD (“My brother likes the Jets.”) or a fancy Scotch decanter (“My grandpa only drinks beer.”).
They give him the polite but condescending look saved for clueless dads that they no doubt learned from their older brothers and sisters. Overheard last year: “My dad likes to drink water so I’m buying him a cup.”
Each present is carefully and thoughtfully chosen. Though they may not be presents adults would pick out, who wouldn’t want a “diamond” pin the size of a ring lollipop, a matched set of sherry glasses, a cassette tape of Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits or the “well-loved” naked doll with the yellow fright wig?
There are plenty of “perfect” presents at the Holiday Boutique, too: the Christmas ornament purchased every year for the mom who collects ornaments, the beautiful “Willow Tree” angel holding a sunflower for the grandma who gardens, the train set for the brother who loves trains.
Even the littlest kids quickly get into the spirit of picking out a gift and they often do it with their own money. Prices are low, a quarter or a dollar for an armload.
After the presents are paid for, the kids choose wrapping paper. As one of the elf helpers, I wrap presents. I try to wrap as fast as I can so the anxious teachers can get the dawdlers back to class. But some of the moms wrap with the finesse of a Macy’s gift wrapper, with tiny boxes and tissue paper and elaborate bows. How, though, to wrap the cross country skis, the five-foot white Christmas tree, covered in lights? (Big or gaudy is almost always better when you’re searching for the right gift.) While I am wrapping, the bell rings, signaling the end of class, and the hall fills with older kids. A high school student greets a second-grader, or a first-grader calls out to a senior with all of the pride of a buddy — one of the best things about a K-12 school.
Later, after the little kids have finished, the older kids are allowed to shop. And even though they pretend to be too cool, they choose as carefully as the younger ones do.
Some of the kids are so proud of what they bought, they make the recipients open it right away, sometimes even in the car, on the way home.
On Christmas morning, the children give their beautifully wrapped gifts. The excitement, the anticipation they must feel, not of receiving, but of giving the perfect gift. Long after the boy has grown, and the diamond pin breaks or disappears, his mom will remember her second-grade son presenting his gift, as proud as if he’d discovered the Hope Diamond.
That’s what Christmas is about.