In celebration of modest Christmases past

My favorite gift of childhood was so surprising and moving and big. I was 9 or 10 and badly wanted a desk. I needed a desk because I had been selling neighborhood subscriptions to a local weekly newspaper called, as I remember it, the Massapequa Post. My success convinced me that I would someday be a great newspaper executive. I noticed in the old movies that played on channel 9 that what were then called career women—Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn played those parts—often had a long, triangular nameplate on their desks. I made one for myself out of cardboard at school. Now all I needed was the desk. But such a piece of furniture was too expensive, too much to ask for in a family of nine.

I was in a religious phase, however, and prayed. And on Christmas morning, there beside the tree was a rough, oblong piece of beige plywood stapled or nailed to two pieces of plywood supporting it on either side. And if you looked at it with imagination, it looked exactly like . . . a desk. I was in heaven. I got a kitchen chair, sat at the desk and closed my eyes and thanked God. Then, suddenly, with my eyes closed, in my imagination, I saw it. Everything. There was a manger in the darkness and a man and a woman, and it was cold and there were stars in the sky, and hills, and wise men came with staffs and gazed in wonder. I saw it all, as if on film in a newsreel. It hit me like an electric bolt. I thought: “It’s all true. It really happened. I just saw it.”

I never forgot it, of course, and in later years, teaching catechism classes, I’d say at the end, “All you have to do is remember: It’s all true. It really happened. Just keep that in your mind.”