I remember when the magic of Christmas burst. I must have been eight or nine, and it was the year my parents gave me a plastic green sledge. It was huge – by far the biggest present under the tree. I didn’t have the foresight or inclination to furtively feel what it was through the paper, and I have no memory of what I was expecting. But when I unwrapped it, I immediately burst into tears, which I think we can all agree made me an ungrateful little brat. In my defence, Christmas Day that year was – like so many – wet and grey, and I had only one very vague memory of British snow, so the present of a sledge seemed to taunt me with that mythical white Christmas; a perfect day that I was already sure couldn’t exist.
Once my tears had dried, I decided that I would never invest hope in Christmas presents ever again. I went on to become a lousy present-buyer and only marginally better at receiving them. There was something about the layers of expectation that floored me. The fear, resentment and waste of giving something that was unwanted only worsened in adult life. No one needs to add to the world’s woes with a dashed gesture of love.
It occurs to me now that this may be why 12 years ago my mother gave me a present that was so blindingly good that it has changed every day since; a present so particularly perfect that I wake up every day and in its folds of sweet softness find immense gratitude – for it and for my mother’s foresight and love.
I felt then, and still do, that no present will ever come close to how excellent a jack russell puppy in a big red bow is. The whole of that Christmas is eclipsed by the flood of love I found the minute I saw her. How delicious she smelled, how excellent she looked in my coat pocket, how wonderful her excitable dance for each day made the mornings. We named her Isabel, which produced endless “Is a bell necessary on a bike?” jokes when I cycled to work each day with her in a basket.
The first few nights away from my parents’ house, that small squiggle of a thing howled so loudly and so relentlessly that by the fifth night of no sleep, we brought her into our bedroom to see if that would offer some peace. She held out until she had got under the covers – and she has been there ever since. She wakes me most mornings by staring at me and sighing heavily at such a frequency that you can’t complain that she’s making a noise, but you can’t sleep through it, either. If this doesn’t work, she has learned to flap her ears so furiously that even the dead would be woken, and then practises a look of utter innocence. It’s a very good joke and even better on Christmas morning.
Isabel wasn’t a surprise by any means – I’d been looking for a dog for some time. My mother just had the forethought to make me wait – in part, I’m guessing, to remind me of the magic of Christmas. I would love to say that I have subsequently become a great gift-giver; I haven’t. But I do understand why you should strive to find something not necessarily expensive or extravagant, but that will be loved and cherished for years to come.