“You know what’s the best gift you can give for someone for Christmas?” the old man next to me commented out of the blue. By pure happenstance, we shared a bench in the middle of the shopping mall, watching shoppers trundling by laden with bags and boxes and casting an occasional eye toward the line of kiddies at the Santaland set up nearby. He spoke without prompting. I’d hardly noticed him, in fact, caught up in thoughts of my own Christmas wish list, and hoping that my mother was off picking up some of the clothing items on it even as I waited for her in our designated meeting spot by the movie theater. “The best gift you can give someone,” he continued, “is to bake them a loaf of bread. They will remember that long after any of this other stuff you can spend your money on. Yes,” he said. “That’s the best thing you can do.”
This purely unsolicited, homespun advice seemed so out of place, and to my fifteen-year-old mind so exceedingly hilarious, that I could only nod in agreement. I couldn’t wait to share the story with my friends. It carried me throughout that holiday season and beyond, could always be counted on for a good laugh.
I have no idea who the old man was waiting for, if he was waiting for anyone at all that day. He didn’t say. And I didn’t give him the chance. Perhaps he was voicing his own frustration with the wife who was out spending too much money on the grandkids. Or maybe he was just one of the seniors who came to the mall for a bit of exercise and to be a part of the holiday bustle, even without a shopping list to complete. But his words stuck in my head. And in their “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” way, I slowly came to not only realize their essential truth, but to fully appreciate the sentiment. The memories of time spent baking Christmas cookies and making chocolate truffles with and for friends and family far outweigh even the holidays with the richest haul of gifts. (OK, with the exception of the year when I woke to find that there really was a Cinderella watch and Barbie under the tree, ’cause I would have just died without them.) So too, do the memories of those Fridays after Thanksgiving when my mother and I had a tradition of going shopping, not for the Black Friday sales or 3 a.m. doorbuster specials, but just to browse and have lunch, because we so rarely had the chance to eat out. We’d return home to a late afternoon movie and a piece of pumpkin pie.
To the prophet of the shopping mall I say, Thank you. And I’ve perfected the bread.