There was a knock on my door, followed by muffled giggling. I was wary; it had only been a week since my roommates and I had gotten into a vicious surprise indoor snowball fight, and I imagined retribution would be forthcoming. When Hannah and I decided to fill the freezer with pre-packed snowballs in order to pelt Kat, our cold-averse, mildly vindictive Californian friend, I knew we’d have to pay a price.
But what the fuck, right? I’d have to open the door eventually.
So to the door I went. And there they both were on the landing outside, tugging what had to be an 8-foot Christmas tree to keep it from sliding back down the stairs to the floor below.
They were all grins as they yelled “Look what we found outside!”
Found. Not bought. The full story went like this:
In New York City, overzealous holiday patrons sometimes mistakenly purchase their Christmas trees at the first opportunity, as soon as the tree hawkers set up their stands after Thanksgiving. This leads to the early discarding of dried-out trees, roughly two weeks before the actual holiday. Kat and Hannah, my industrious and thrifty roommates, decided not to let this prime (albeit slightly crunchy) tree go to waste. A thin trail of fallen needles marked their journey from the front door of our brownstone all the way up to the fourth floor landing, which is where I joined the tale with only one question on my mind.
“It’s covered in urine, isn’t it? Did you bring me a pee-tree from the street?” I asked.
“Definite dog pee. Possible hobo pee. Merry Christmas!” Kat tittered as she shouldered me aside and, in a fresh explosion of needles, jammed the tree squarely into my door.
We all like to imagine the holidays are about family, and peace, and appreciating what you have while looking ahead at what’s to come. But c’mon — it’s also about the giving and receiving of presents. I know we’re supposed to be bigger than all that, but I’ll say it: I love getting presents. I fucking love it! I love surprises. I love opening boxes. I love that small act of discovery that fills your heart with warmth. But here’s the thing: it’s not so much the acquisition of objects or even what those objects are that matters to me. It’s the insight into the mind of the gift-giver that a present can provide. Sometimes the best presents aren’t even things we actually want, like, you know, used urine-soaked conifers. They’re things that prove how much we mean to the people we love.
And seriously, the people in my life have fucking weird ways of showing their affection. Kat, for example, is probably the best gift-giver I’ve ever known. What sets her apart is the amount of effort and thought she puts into even the simplest of gestures.
We started out living together in that brownstone during college, and then we trekked a little farther uptown with Hannah and a few other friends to inhabit a 5-bedroom apartment. She lived with us for about a year, and then she returned home to Los Angeles to focus on her grad school applications.
One day, sometime around my birthday, I received a box from Kat in the mail. Inside was an In-N-Out burger (animal style, natch) with a single bite taken out, along with a $5 gift certificate to the restaurant. Now, I fucking LOVE In-N-Out in a way that borders on obsession. And as you likely know, THERE ARE NO IN-N-OUT JOINTS ON THE EAST COAST. This was like a big “Fuck You” in a box. I couldn’t eat the burger. I couldn’t use the certificate. I could just stare at them, blankly, debating what I was supposed to do.
But here’s what’s even MORE impressive. That burger? It was perfectly preserved. Not soggy, not moldy. When I asked her about it, she explained her methods. She bought the burger and brought it home, then took the aforementioned single bite. Then she dissected it, pulling apart the buns, patty, and toppings, and set them all outside on a table to dry in the hot California sun. By the time it got to me, it was rock solid. Perfectly preserved. I almost shellacked it and turned it into an ashtray, I was so amused by it.
A few days after I received the box, I got an envelope in the mail from Kat. Inside was a cut-out sketch of an airplane. The second part of her gift had arrived: a promise that she’d buy me a ticket to fly out and visit her whenever I wanted. Which would, incidentally, allow me to make use of that gift certificate. And while that was a VERY generous gesture, one that more than made up for the box of rotten food, there was also another side to it. See, she was lonely. She wanted visitors, and she knew I was lazy and would never probably do it of my own volition (I’m just not good at planning things, especially air travel). So my favorite part of this extravagant, convoluted, carefully-planned present is that it was as much for her as it was for me.
Then there was the year that Kat mailed a Christmas package to my parents’ house, filled with treats for our dog. Pointedly, there was nothing for me.
When my wedding rolled around, she outdid herself again. My husband and I never set up a wedding registry, because a) we lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and didn’t have room to worry about, I dunno, fancy plates or standing mixers or whatever, b) I always felt awkward about registries because, as I mentioned, gifts are more interesting when they’re chosen by the giver rather than dictated by the receiver, and c) getting married was MY life choice, and other people shouldn’t have to pay for that. The only gift I really wanted was for people to come and celebrate with us — anything beyond that was up to them.
So about a month before the wedding, I got a flat-rate USPS box in the mail. Inside was a long, narrow package gift-wrapped in Jar-Jar Binks wrapping paper. Somehow Kat had found and purchased wrapping paper featuring the most HATED character in the entire history of Star Wars! The brilliance continued inside the package, where a printout of Nic Cage’s face screamed out at me… with a champagne saber poking through his mouth. Who doesn’t want to get a mini sword for their wedding?!
This time of year, when gift giving is on everyone’s brains, I can’t help but reflect on Kat, and how much fun can be had with presents. A good surprise is better than a hefty price-tag, and even the most useless object can be touching if it comes from someone who cares. The best presents are the ones that become their own stories — and the best gifts are the people who give them.
What are the most memorable gifts you’ve ever received? Or your proudest moments of gift-giving genius?