by Melissa Brotton  |  10 December 2019  |

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (James 1:17 NKJV)

Christmas often brings fond memories of elementary-school days, my studies, and my classmates and teachers at our small church school. I loved recess with dodge-ball, jump-roping, or snowman-building in winter, and chatting with friends. I loved story-time when our teacher read to us from the front of the room. But there was one thing I did not love, and that was the Christmas-gift exchange.

With my great love of giving and receiving gifts, you’d think I’d be thrilled about the Christmas exchange, and at first, I was. Each year Mom would take my sister and me shopping to buy our presents. Carefully, we’d choose toys we knew we’d like to receive. Generally, these took the form of picture books, or stuffed animals, or tiny dolls with extra clothing. We were careful to follow the five-dollar rule, and Mom always added chocolate coins in gold foil to make it extra special. Then she would help us wrap the gifts in bright paper with bows, and we’d carefully stow them in our backpacks for the next day’s walk to school.

The first year of my great misfortune started out as a normal day in third grade. Everything was going well as usual. After playing hard at recess in the snow, we came in laughing with numb fingers and tingling faces. Taking off our boots, we slipped into our shoes and raced to our classroom, knowing the next thing was the gift exchange.

Finding our seats, we admired the tree, decorated with our own paper ornaments. Our teacher had turned the lights on, and it looked divine. Then our eyes turned to the table, where she had laid out each wrapped gift. We waited as patiently as possible as she explained how the drawing worked with basket in hand.

“As I draw out each name, you can come to the table and choose any gift. At the end, you can choose to trade your gift for someone else’s if you are both willing to trade.”

That being said, she reached into the basket and called out the first name. James went up to select his gift. He walked straight over to one edge of the table and pulled a small, square package from beneath a large, flat gift. He tore the paper off it to reveal a tiny blue race-car with orange lightning bolts on its sides. We all knew that James had just chosen his own gift, but that was forgivable. All eyes glued to the table, we waited for the next name.

Julia.

She selected an oblong gift wrapped in green and gold plaid. It was a beautiful doll with gold hair in a green and gold plaid dress. In one arm she held a matching purse and in the other, oh, wonder of wonders, a small Scottish Terrier. My heart leaped, and I searched the table to see if there were other oblong packages. Next, it was my sister’s turn. She chose the only other oblong package, and, it, too, was a Scottish doll in blue and green plaid with matching purse and Scotty. Lynn went up next and chose one of our gifts – a pink bubble-watch that zipped open to reveal a tiny removable ballerina. Again, I scanned the table and waited for my turn.

Wade. Brian. Cindy.

Nikki, my best friend, went up and got a real-looking stuffed kitten with adoption papers. Was my turn never coming? The number of gifts had already gone down considerably.

Jason. Jennifer. Amy. Jonathan. The room was growing loud with chattering and squeals of delight each time a gift was opened.

Finally, my name was called. The pickings were certainly slim by that point, and there were only a few small, flat gifts left. I chose one and carefully opened it. Inside was a thin, wooden paddle with a colorful ball attached to it inside a plastic sleeve with the large red letters across it, “PADDLE-BALL.” A paddle-ball. Was this some joke? Maybe the teacher would explain that it was only a white-elephant gift and send me on a treasure-hunt for the real gift? But she went on blandly calling names.

I was stunned. The gift couldn’t have cost more than 50 cents. A last-minute thought at the check-out after you’ve done all your shopping. An “oh, yeah, Mom, we need to get gifts for the exchange” kind of gift. Staring at it, my heart dropped into my stomach, but, knowing the classmate who brought the gift might be watching me, I put on a brave face.

“Oh, it’s a paddle-ball,” I said with forced excitement. Taking it out of its plastic sleeve, I stole a desperate glance around the room in the off-chance someone might trade with me. But my classmates were busy admiring their own gifts. So, with an inward whimper, I turned and faced my paddle-ball. Putting on my brightest smile, I tried to give it a few whacks, but it was more challenging than I thought it would be. After making a few more attempts, I gave up and went back to my seat.

Nikki sidled over to show me her stuffed cat, still in its box shaped like a little house. I held it for a moment and looked into its bright green eyes before handing it back to her.

“I didn’t see what you got,” she said.

I put on my best sales pitch voice. “Oh, it’s a really fun game where you hit a ball with a paddle. Wanna trade?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Nuh-uh. I like mine.”

I couldn’t blame her.

The incident may have been a forgotten speedbump on memory’s road if not for the fact that it happened again the following year.

Another paddle-ball.

This time I barely managed to express any outward sign of delight. Inside a bitter root spouted. How could this have happened to me twice? I tried not to look at my friends enjoying their gifts, especially the gift I had so carefully selected, a red-haired doll in a green gingham dress with a pink exchangeable jumpsuit, sandals, and even a small basket of garden vegetables. My heart sank again. I seemed forever doomed to receiving nothing more than paddle-balls. When Kenny Timber asked if he could try out my gift, I shrugged and handed it over. After just one whack, the band broke and the ball went flying across the room. With a slick apology, Kenny tossed the paddle back to me, then dashed off to race his new car with two other boys.

When I showed Nikki the paddle-ball, her eyes widened. “What? Again?”

I put my finger to my lips as she fought to contain her laughter, but she was shaking so hard, she had to leave the room. I felt miserable.

At last the bell rang and school was out. As I climbed into Mom’s car, I felt I would finally receive the commiseration and support I needed.

“Look. Another one,” I said, showing her the paddle. “Can you believe it?”

“How did you get so lucky twice?” Mom joked.

I could hear my sister giggling in the backseat.

Even Dad had a good chuckle about it. After supper, I helped clear the table, then sauntered down the hall to my room and sat down at my desk to brood alone over my misfortune. Looking around, I knew I didn’t have any reason to complain. My room was filled with beautiful dolls, stuffed animals, and miniatures. Why was I so unhappy about the paddle-ball? After all, there was still our family Christmas to look forward to, and what was Christmas supposed to be about anyway? Even so, I could not shake the feeling of injustice. All that work of looking for the perfect gift and then to be handed a paddle-ball. How could anyone really think it was okay to give something like that? I did a mental line-up of my classmates, so I could pinpoint the prime suspect.

Mom’s soft knocking interrupted my detective work. She entered with a cup of hot apple cider and set it on my desk, then gave me her mind-reading look. “Now, don’t let it ruin your whole evening.”

“I think it was the Percys – twice,” I blurted out.

“I see.” Mom was silent for a few seconds. Then she asked a question. “What do you think the Percys will do at home for Christmas?”

I thought about it. The three Percy children were being raised by their grandparents. They came to school in neat but old-fashioned clothing. Their hair was frizzy because they washed it with bar soap in place of shampoo. Once I had seen their house in the country with its chipped paint, dirty windows and lawn strewn with old junk. [1]

It was true what Mom meant. Our family thought of the school gift exchange as one small part of a holiday filled with special things – our own Christmas Eve at home, visiting the relatives and getting more gifts, a huge dinner, and Christmas morning stocking gifts. But for the Percy family, the school gift exchange probably was their big Christmas. Compassion crept through a crack in my mind’s door. I recalled how little Bree Percy’s eyes had lit up when opening her new doll and how Kyla had hugged the stuffed elephant we had bought. Kevin had whooped nonstop around the room with his new jet. For the Percys, the school gift exchange was a guarantee they would get any gift at all.

A gentle wave of peace rolled over me then as the tears came, and, trying to speak, I only sputtered.

Mom reached an arm around me, reading what I couldn’t say.

Through the years my Christmas-exchange predicament has been transformed into a sweet memory. Ironically, the paddle-ball is the only gift I recall from those years (and sometimes I still receive a paddle-ball or two under the tree for old-times’ sake). Something that once represented disappointment has become a token of my continual need for God’s perspective when I face setbacks today. And though I may be a bit paddle-ballish myself at times – disappointing, inconstant, easily broken, and prone to flying off the handle – I have confidence that Jesus knows how to fix what is broken, a gift that won’t disappoint, and I will rely more on his constancy because of his steady work, starting years ago in a pouty third-grader.

[1] Names and details have been changed to protect the innocent.


Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems. 

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