What Wise Men Wish For

A guest post by Tommy Tomlinson, Staff Writer, The Charlotte Observer, republished here on December 24, 2010

The best Christmas gift I ever got is one I don’t remember.

My mom still tells the story. I was 3 years old or thereabouts. Weeks before Christmas, my dad picked out the perfect present – a train set.

He hid it in a big cardboard box. Then, on Christmas Eve, he put it together on the living-room floor while I slept.

They brought me in Christmas morning and showed it to me. The headlights flashed. Smoke puffed from the smokestack. I was in love.

Then the train whistle blew, high-pitched and loud.

I ran from the room, screaming.

I wouldn’t come back until that evil train was gone. My dad was heartbroken. He took the set apart and put it away. Then he walked back to the living room.

And there I was, cheerfully playing with the cardboard box.

The gift you give isn’t always the one you intend.

We worry so much at Christmas about choosing the perfect present. This year people camped outside stores to buy the new Xbox, muscled through crowds to get the new iPods, wandered the malls looking for the ideal pair of earrings or the ultimate leather jacket.

We talk about how it’s the thought that counts. We don’t appear to believe it.

But when everything depends on choosing the right gift, what happens when it’s not? What if the sweater doesn’t fit, or they already have three of the same thing, or the kid flees the room when the train whistle blows?

That’s when Christmas gets interesting. Because when the last shred of wrapping paper falls to the floor, we’re left with the real gifts of Christmas:

One another.

We all bring something to Christmas. Somebody knows how to hook up the lights. Somebody can tell when the turkey’s done. Somebody brings extra batteries. Somebody saves the bows for next year. Somebody takes the lead on the carols.

And at some point, we go deeper. Somebody asks Grandma about her achy knees. Somebody checks to see if the girls are having trouble in school. Somebody slips his brother a couple hundred bucks, just until things get straightened out.

For so many of us in scattered families, Christmas is the best chance to make things whole. We put a lot of thought into each gift. We don’t think so much about the package.

But when you really care about people, the package is what matters most. Whatever’s inside, the inscription is the same: I thought about you.

All the best gifts are packed with love, wrapped with care, tied up with hope.

Remember that today when you open your presents. You might not get what you wanted. But chances are you’ll get something better.

We celebrate wise men at Christmas. My dad was a wise man. He got tickled when he saw me playing with that box.

I didn’t want what he bought me. But I’ve lived my whole life on the love he boxed it up in.

This column appeared in The Charlotte Observer on December 25, 2005.  

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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.