Sometimes it’s not what Christmas gives to you, it’s what you give to Christmas.

One year, when I was about 10 years old, we set up a pine tree in a 5-gallon bucket of sand for our Christmas tree. It wasn’t much, but it was festive. To hide the bucket, my mom and I filled boxes with gravel, wrapped them like presents and stacked them around the tree.

All season long, those presents sat untouched, gathering a light layer of dust and pine needles, a few getting splashed with water from keeping the tree green. Every once in a while, I’d go over and tap the box and, sure enough, hear the rattle of gravel inside.

On Christmas morning, I awoke to find only those boxes there, still covered in dust and needles. Still with the bows, now smushed from being stacked. Even the approximately five miles of tape I used to wrap the boxes was still in place — no rips, tears or smudges to suggest rewrapping.

At first, I played along, pretending not to notice the lack of shiny new toys. I made up excuses to go check on things outside, to make sure there were no presents hidden there. Like, say, a pony. I checked under beds and in closets. Finally, I admitted defeat and plopped down with a pout. From this side of parenthood, I can imagine the bemused smiles my mom and dad had. As a child, though, I recall only the abject misery of having been overlooked by Santa.

With some convincing, I began to unwrap the boxes under the tree. I examined each one with the laser focus of a child bent on uncovering a sliver, any sliver at all, of Santa’s elves at work. I could find no fault with them. Then I started to peel back the layers of tape, brush off the dust and needles, take off the dilapidated bows.

The boxes didn’t rattle.

There wasn’t any gravel.

There were toys. And clothes. And a new book sack — a canvas one that you carried over your shoulder like in books, not a plastic one strapped to your back. I still can’t figure out how they did it. I mean, not a single shred of wrapping paper was out of place. And when I say there was tape — you could’ve safely stowed national security documents in those boxes. Whittaker Chambers’ pumpkin has nothing on any present I’ve wrapped. think about those boxes and remember that, to a child, Christmas means magic. And no matter what else is going on, whatever current debate is raging over Christmas, the wonder remains.Every year at this time, I

Beth Colvin is The Advocate’s assistant Food editor. You can reach her at