Every Christmas Eve when my sister and I were little, my mom would get us in our red and white holiday pajamas and fuzzy reindeer slippers and then, snuggled against my father, one against each arm, he read The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell aloud. It is from the 1940s, the story of a child having difficulty adjusting to the life of an angel. His inability to sing on key or keep his halo on straight annoys the grown-up angels. In an attempt to help, the Understanding Angel asks him what might make him feel welcome in his Eternal home; the Littlest Angel responds that he wants something that reminds him of his life on Earth, a box that he left under his bed containing his childish treasures, “ a butterfly with golden wings . . . a sky blue egg from a bird’s nest . . . two white stones, found on a river bank . . . and . . . a tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog.” It is here that, every year, I began to snuffle, not because the story’s premise is of a child who dies, but because all of those things he valued spoke to me so clearly it is as though Tazewell looked directly into my soul as he wrote.
The collars of every furry pet I have ever adopted are stored in a carved wooden box from Malaysia. My fishbowl and turtle tank are filled with round, white, stones chosen one by one from the sands of Main Beach in East Hampton and Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island. I save bird’s nests blown from trees in summer storms to put in shadow boxes and, like the Littlest Angel, collect fallen blue half-shells of robin’s eggs every spring, thrilled that we will have baby birds in our backyard.
As The Littlest Angel continues, the day comes when God announces that His son will be born in Bethlehem and each angel, excited at the prospect, prepares a gift. The Littlest Angel is ashamed that he has no “glorious” gift to offer, so he gives the only thing he has, the “small, rough, unsightly box” filled with “useless things.” While gazing at the offerings for His son, God chooses the Littlest Angel’s box of Earthly castoffs as the one which pleases Him the most by saying its contents are “the things of Earth . . . the things My Son will know and love and cherish, too . . . “ This is where I begin to cry in earnest – even now, decades after the first time I ever heard the story.
It is not just because the story is unabashedly sentimental, although it is. Neither is it just because I am a crybaby, although my sister spent our childhood insisting that I am. The story stabs me in the heart with its profound truthfulness about the dichotomy between financial and emotional value.
Like most of my friends, I am a big fan of stuff, especially holiday decorations. While they are not all the same in monetary value, they are equal in my heart. I have hand-blown glass holiday ornaments from Fortnum and Mason and Harrods, but still have a place on the coffee table for the pinecone decorated like a Christmas tree by my niece Talia when she was a child. The fireplace mantel holds a crèche set, hand-carved from olive wood, bought from a street market in Bethlehem, but what matters more to me than the beauty of the figures is that it was a gift from a friend, purchased for me during her holiday in the Holy Land. And while I appreciate a Gucci bag as much as the next woman – maybe more , but you’d have to ask Jamie about that – I love receiving things that my friends and family have made, like Debbie Levin’s pottery bowls and Steve Vallillo’s cookies.
Especially at this time of year, with its crowded schedules and financial stress, I try to remember that being present in my family and friends’ lives is the gift most of them desire and value.