Christmas Means Giving
By David Sedaris
Holidays on Ice (1997)
For the first twelve years of our marriage Beth and I happily set the
neighborhood standard for comfort and luxury. It was an established fact
that we were brighter and more successful but the community seemed to
accept our superiority without much complaint and life flowed on the way
it should. I used to own a hedge polisher, an electric shovel, and three
Rolex gas grills that stood side by side in the backyard. One was for
chicken, one for beef, and the third I had specially equipped to steam
the oriental pancakes we were always so fond of. When the holidays rolled
around I used to rent a moving van and drive into the city, snatching
up every bright new extravagance that caught my eye. Our twin sons, Taylor
and Weston, could always count on the latest electronic toy or piece of
sporting equipment. Beth might receive a "riding vacuum cleaner or
a couple pair of fur-lined jeans and those were just the stocking stuffers!
There were disposable boats, ultrasuede basketballs, pewter knapsacks,
and solar-powered card shufflers. I'd buy them shoes and clothes and bucketfuls
of jewelry from the finest boutiques and department stores. Far be it
from me to snoop around for a bargain or discount. I always paid top dollar,
thinking that those foot-long price tags really meant something about
Christmas. After opening our gifts we'd sit down to a sumptuous banquet,
feasting on every imaginable variety of meat and pudding. When one of
us got full and felt uncomfortable, we'd stick a silver wand down our
throats, throw up, and start eating allover again. In effect, we weren't
much different from anyone else. Christmas was a season of bounty and
to the outside world, we were just about the most bountiful people anyone
could think of. We thought we were happy but that all changed on one crisp
Thanksgiving day shortly after the Cottinghams arrived.
If my memory serves me correctly, the Cottinghams were trouble from the
very first moment they moved in next door. Doug, Nancy, and their unattractive
eight-year-old daughter, Eileen, were exceedingly envious and greedy people.
Their place was a little smaller than ours but it made sense, seeing as
there were four of us and only three of them. Still though, something
about the size of our house so bothered them that they hadn't even unpacked
the first suitcase before starting construction on an indoor skating rink
and a three'-thousand-square-foot pavilion where Doug could show off his
collection of pre-Columbian sofa beds. Because we felt like doing so,
Beth and I then began construction on an indoor soccer field and a five-thousand-square-foot
rotunda where I could comfortably display my collection of pre-pre-Columbian
sofa beds. Doug would tell all the neighbors I'd stolen the idea from
him but I'd been thinking about pre-pre-Columbian sofa beds long before
the Cottinghams pulled into town. They just had to cause trouble, no matter
what the cost. When Beth and I built a seven-screen multiplex theater
they had to go and build themselves a twelve-screener, This went on and
on and, to make a long story short, within a year's time neither one of
us had much of a yard. The two houses now butted right up against each
other and we blocked out the west-side windows so that we wouldn't have
to look into their gaudy fitness center or second-story rifle range.
Despite their competitive nature, Beth and I tried our best to be neighborly
and occasionally invite them over for rooftop barbecues and so forth.
I'd attempt to make adult conversation, saying something like "I
just paid eight thousand dollars for a pair of sandals that don't even
fit me." Doug would counter, saying that he himself had just paid
ten thousand for a single flip-flop he wouldn't wear even if it did fit
him. He was always very combative that way. I fit cost you seventy thousand
dollars to have a cavity filled, you could bet your boots it cost him
at least a hundred and twenty five thousand. I suffered his company for
the better part of a year until one November evening when we got into
a spat over which family sent out the most meaningful Christmas card.
Beth and I normally hired a noted photographer to snap a portrait of the
entire family surrounded by the gifts we had received the year before.
In- side the card would be the price of these gifts along with the message
"Christmas Means Giving." The Cottinghams favored their card,
which consisted of a Xeroxed copy of Doug and Nancy's stock portfolio.
I said that while it is all very well and good to have money, their card
said nothing about the way they spent money. Like our card said, Christmas
means giving and even if he were to gussy up his stock report with a couple
of press-on candy canes it would still fail to send the proper holiday
message. The conversation grew quite heated and some punches were thrown
between the wives. We'd all had a few drinks and by the time the Cottinghams
left our house it was generally assumed that our friendship was over.
I dwelled upon the incident for a day or two and then turned my attention
toward the approaching holidays. We'd just finished another of our gut-busting
Thanksgiving dinners and Beth, the boys, and I were watching a bullfight
on TV. We could watch whatever we wanted back then because we still had
our satellite dish. Juan Carlos Ponce de Velasquez had just been gored
something fierce and we were all acting pretty excited about it when the
doorbell rang. I figured one of the boys had ordered a pizza and opened
the door surprised to find a foul-smelling beggar. He was a thin, barefooted
man with pepperoni. sized scabs on his legs and an unkempt beard smeared
with several different varieties of jam. I sensed it was the jam we'd
thrown into the garbage the night before and one look at our overturned
trash can told me I was right. This had me pretty ticked off but before
I could say anything about it, the old bum pulled out a coffee mug and
started whining for money.
When Beth asked who was at the door I called out, "Code Blue,"
which was our secret signal that one of us should release the hounds.
We had two of them back then, big Dobermans named Butterscotch and Mr.
Lewis. Beth tried to summon them from the dining room but, having gorged
themselves on turkey and stuffing, it was all they could do to lift their
heads and vomit. Seeing as they were laid up, I got down on my hands and
knees and bit the guy myself. Maybe it was the bullfight but, for whatever
reason, I had a sudden taste for blood. My teeth barely broke the skin
but that was all it took to send the old coot hobbling over to the Cottinghams
place. I watched him pound upon their door, knowing full well what would
happen when he told competitive Doug Copy Cat that I'd given him one measly
bite on the calf. Beth called me into the house for one reason or another
and when I returned to the door a few minutes later, I saw Helvetica,
the Cottinghams maid, taking a photograph of Doug, Nancy, and Eileen
handing the tramp a one-dollar bill.
I knew something was up and, sure enough, two weeks later I came to find
that exact same snapshot on the Cottinghams Christmas card along
with the words "Christmas means giving." That had always been
our slogan and here he'd stolen it, twisting the message in an attempt
to make us appear selfish. It had never been our way to give to others
but I started having second thoughts when I noticed the phenomenal response
the Cottinghams received on the basis of their Christmas card. Suddenly
they were all anyone was talking about. Walk into any holiday party and
you'd hear, "Did you see it? I think it's positively enchanting.
Here these people donated money to an absolute stranger! Can you beat
that? A whole dollar they gave to this vagrant person with absolutely
nothing to his name. If you ask me, those Cottinghams are a couple of
very brave and generous people."
Doug would probably say that I unfairly stole his idea when I myself
became a generous person but this was not the case. I'd been thinking
of being generous long before he showed up on the scene and, besides that,
if he could illegally pinch my holiday slogan, why couldn't I casually
borrow a concept that had been around for a good ten years ? When I first
told people that I had given two dollars to the Inner City Headache Fund
they turned away as if they didn't believe me. Then I actually did give
two dollars to the Headache Fund and boy, did things ever change once
I started flashing around that canceled check! Generosity can actually
make people feel quite uncomfortable if you talk about it enough. I don't
mean the bad "boring uncomfortable" but something much richer.
If practiced correctly, generosity can induce feelings of shame, inadequacy,
and even envy, to name just a few. The most important thing is that you
keep some written or visual proof of your donation, otherwise there's
really no point in giving to charity. Doug Cottingham would say I took
that line from him but I'm pretty sure I read it in a tax manual.
I carried my canceled check to all the important holiday parties but
people lost interest shortly after New Years Eve. The sea- sons
passed and I forgot all about my generosity until the following Thanksgiving,
when the old tramp returned to our neighborhood. He must have remembered
the previous year' bite to the leg and, as a result, he was just
about to pass us by when we called him in for a good dose of benevolence.
First we videotaped him eating a palmful of leftover stuffing and then
I had Beth snap a picture as I handed the geezer a VCR. It was an old
top-loading Betamax but put a new cord on it and Im sure it would
have worked just fine. We watched then as he strapped it on his back and
headed next door to continue his begging. The sight of that VCR was all
it took for that skunk Doug Cottingham, who stepped into his house and
returned to present the old codger with an eight-track tape deck and,
oh, once again their maid was on hand to take a picture of it. We then
called the tramp over to our house and gave him a year- old blow-dryer.
The Cottinghams responded with a toaster oven. Within an hour we had advanced
to pool tables and StairMasters, Doug gave him a golf cart and I gave
him my satellite dish. This accelerated until any fool could see exactly
where it was heading. Handing over the keys to his custom-built motorized
travel sauna, Doug Cottingham gave me a look that seemed to say, "Top
that, Neighbor!" Beth and I had seen that look before and we hated
it. I could have easily topped his travel sauna but we were running low
on film and thought it best to cut to the chase. Why needlessly escalate
when we all knew what was most important? After a brief conference, Beth
and I called the tramp back over and asked which he liked better, young
boys or young girls. Much to our delight he said that girls were too much
of a headache but that he'd had some fun with boys before his last visit
to our local state penitentiary. That said, we gave him our ten-year-old
sons, Taylor and Weston. Top that, Neighbor! You should have seen the
look on Doug Cottinghams face! That years Christmas card was
the most meaningful to date. It pictured our sons tearful good-bye
along with the message "Christmas means giving until it hurts."
We were the toast of the neighborhood that holiday season, back on top
where we belonged. Beth and I were the couple to have at any cocktail
party or informal tree trimming.
"Where are those supergenerous people with that delightful Christmas
card?" someone would ask, and the host would point in our direction
while the Cottinghams bitterly gritted their teeth. As a last-ditch effort
to better their names they donated their horse-faced daughter, Eileen,
to a crew of needy pirates but anyone in the know could see it as the
desperate gesture it really was. Once again we were the ones everyone
wanted to be with and the warm glow of their admiration carried us through
the holiday season. We received a second helping of awe early the following
summer when the boys were discovered dead in what used to be Doug Cottinghams
motorized travel sauna. The neighbors all wanted to send flowers but we
said wed prefer them to make a donation in our name to the National
Sauna Advisory Board or the Sex Offenders Defense Fund. This was a good
move and soon we had established ourselves as "Christlike."
The Cottinghams were, of course, furious and immediately set to work on
their tired game of oneupsmanship. It was most likely the only thing they
thought about but we didn't lose any sleep over it.
For that years holiday cards we had settled on the theme "Christmas
means giving until it bleeds." Shortly after Thanksgiving Beth and
I had visited our local blood bank, where we nearly drained our bodies
precious accounts. Pale and dizzy from our efforts, it was all we could
do to lift a hand and wave to one another from our respective gurneys.
We recovered in time and were just sealing our envelopes when the postman
delivered our neighbors' holiday card, which read "Christmas means
giving of yourself." The cover pictured Doug lying outstretched upon
an operating table as a team of surgeons busily, studiously, removed his
glistening Cottingham lung. Inside the card was a photograph of the organ's
recipient, a haggard coal miner holding a sign that read "Douglas
Cottingham saved my life."
How dare he! Beth and I had practically invented the theme of medical
generosity and it drove us mad, that smug, superior expression seeping
from beneath our neighbors surgical mask. Any long-married couple
can, in times of crisis, communicate without speaking. This fact was illustrated
as my wife and I wordlessly leapt into action. Throwing down her half-sealed
envelope, Beth called the hospital while I contacted a photographer from
our car phone, arrangements were made and before the night was over r
had donated both my eyes, a lung, one of my kidneys, and several important
veins surrounding my heart. Having an unnatural attachment to her internal
organs, Beth surrendered her scalp, her teeth, her right leg, and both
breasts. It wasn't until after her surgery that we realized my wife's
contributions were nontransferable, but by that time it was too late to
sew them back on. She gave the scalp to a startled cancer patient, made
a keepsake necklace of her teeth, and brought the leg and breasts to the
animal shelter, where they were hand-fed to a litter of starving Border
collies. That made the local evening news and once again the Cottinghams
were green with envy over our good fortune. Donating organs to humans
was one thing, but the community went wild over what Beth had done for
those poor abandoned puppies, At each and every holiday party our hosts
would beg my wife to shake their dogs hand or pass a blessing over
the she of their ailing tortoise. The coal-mining recipient of Doug Cottinghams
lung had died when his cigarette set fire to the sheets and bandages covering
his chest and now their name was practically worthless.
We were at the Hepplewhites Christmas Eve party when I overheard
Beth whisper, "That Doug Cottingham couldnt even donate a decent
lung!" She laughed then, long and hard, and I placed my hand upon
her shoulder, feeling the gentle bite of her keepsake necklace. I was
no doubt drawing a good deal of attention myself, but this was Beths
night and I gave it to her freely because I was such a generous person.
We were a team, she and I, and while I couldnt see the way people
were looking at us, I could feel it just as surely as I sensed the warmth
cast off by the Hepplewhites roaring fire.
There would be other Christmases, but I think Beth and I both knew that
this one was special. In a years time we would give away the house,
our money, and what remained of our possessions. After scouting around
for the right neighborhood, we would move into a village of cardboard
boxes located beneath the Ragsdale Cloverleaf. The Cottinghams, true to
their nature, would move into a smaller box next door. The begging would
go relatively well during the holiday season but come deep winter things
would get hard and wed be visited by wave after wave of sorrow and
disease. Beth would die after a long, sad struggle with tuberculosis but
not until after Doug Cottingham and his wife had been killed by pneumonia.
Id try not to let it bother me that they had died first but in truth
I would have a very difficult time dealing with it. Whenever my jealousy
would get the best of me I would reflect back upon that perfect Christmas
Eve at the Hepplewhites. Shuddering beneath my blanket of damp newspapers,
Id try to recall the comforting sound of Beths carefree laughter
and picture her raw head thrown back in merriment, those bright, gleaming
gums reflecting the light of a crystal chandelier. With luck, the memory
of our love and generosity would lull me toward a profound and heavy sleep
that would last until morning.