If you are inclined this time of year to reminiscing about Christmases past, like so many of us of a certain age, you might linger on memories of treasured gifts you received as a child. Perhaps there was a favorite toy, a bicycle, or maybe a special outfit you wanted desperately and never thought your parents could afford.

For me, the most precious memories of Christmas gifts in my youth are tied not to things I received, but to the presents that my father gave to my mother. That’s not to suggest we were deprived as kids; we had much of what we wanted and surely more than we rascals deserved, especially at Christmas. But in our house, there also was magic that didn’t depend on Santa Claus or children.

In some respects—though not all—my parents played the roles of man and wife in the traditional ways of their time. At Christmas, she shopped for everyone else, and he shopped for her. He bragged on his timing (often not until Christmas Eve) and his selections, and he spared no effort in presenting them with theatrical flair.

The gifts ranged from the practical, to the fashionable, to the risque. One year she wanted new pots and pans, and he procured a large set. On Christmas morning she opened a package that contained one pot, with a note announcing that the remaining pieces were hidden around the house. It was a Christmas adventure for our family of six to undertake the search; ultimately, one of the lids never turned up, and whether that joke was his intent, I can’t say to this day. Mom has always loved gardening, and one year he bought her a combination rolling gardener’s seat and tool caddy, with fat wheels enabling the rider to propel herself around the garden. During the height of the Christmas morning chaos, he rode it into the living room, prouder and happier than anyone when my mother howled with unstoppable laughter.

In the era of Jackie Kennedy’s stunning style, Dad loved to buy Mom elegant clothes. He brought home her first mink, a “stole” the color of warm caramel, when we were all very small. It must have been a tremendous stretch on the salary of a salesman supporting four children. I can still hear her high-pitched squeal when she wrapped herself in it.

My parents met as young teens, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her for nearly 70 years. He openly admired her looks whether she was fashionably dressed—or not. One year, in the era when classy sleepwear was just part of a nice wardrobe, she asked for a nightgown. That Christmas morning she opened a beautifully wrapped box that was empty—except for a note that read, “My kind of nightgown.”

Dad didn’t make it to Christmas in the last year of his life, but as he lay in the hospital for weeks in late fall, he dispensed instructions to his daughters about acquiring Mom’s gifts. He sent my sister to the jewelry store with his credit card, while I searched online for a stunning white coat we knew she hankered for. Sadly, the coat was out of stock, so I pondered alternatives and brought those ideas to his bedside for direction. I could try this one, I suggested, and here are a couple of other options. Yes, yes, and yes, he said to all of them. The answer to all questions involving your mother is yes.

I’ve thought about that answer many times in the two years since he left us, thought about how it symbolized a bond that had no ceiling or floor, how it illustrated 62 years of marriage in which, even when life’s inevitable deep shadows intruded, the delights of spontaneity and the desire to please never faded. I briefly wondered if we should concoct some outrageous surprise for Mom this year, to try to continue the custom. At heart, I knew it wasn’t something that can be replicated by others. But knowing the intent behind the act, keeping that sentiment alive, the privilege of witnessing love that lasts a lifetime—those were his gifts not just to her, but to all of us.

Some say that Christmas is for children, and of course that’s true, in a way, because it began with the story of a child. But watching my parents, I learned that the simple pleasure of giving, the joy of surprise, the wonder of the unknown, these are treasures that have no age limit, for those who love.

Merry Christmas. When the question is love, Give us all the faith to answer Yes.

When seeking that perfect holiday gift for a child, the indulgent adult may step forward gamely with an open heart and wallet and the spirit of the season oozing from every pore. Yet even the most well-intended Giver may quickly be overwhelmed by the factors determining selection. Should the gift be: Educational? Outdoor, or indoor? Is assembly required? Is it safe, and age appropriate? Does it beep in a manner that drives nearby adults wild within the work of a moment? And the final question that trumps all others: Will the parents approve?

In pursuit of the preferred answer to that last, the Gentle Giver might even request a list from said parents, presumably achieving pre-approval. Or, perhaps the Giver is shopping for a needy child, and the sponsoring organization has helpfully provided a list of “wants.”

If you have received such a list recently, you may have stopped far short of sorting through answers to the key fundamentals listed above. And that might be because you scanned the list and said to yourself, “What in the name of Rudolph ARE these blasted things?”

Fear not, Gentle Giver. This does not make you Rip Van-Scrooge Winkle. It merely confirms that no rational adult could possibly keep up with the endless parade of new crazes on today’s toy market, along with the box-office smashes that spawn many of them—that, and have time left to navigate the average tasks of daily living. Therefore, some preliminary reconnaissance may be required if you wish to have a clue what you are buying. A full inventory of current favorites would be far too encyclopedic for these Chronicles, but below are a few market research results, gleaned from recent skirmishes in the holiday shopping wars.

Despite the obvious rhyme and potential resulting trademark infringement (though I am not a lawyer and don’t play one on TV), Doc McStuffins is not an insert in a Happy Meal and cannot be obtained in the drive-through at McDonald’s. She is, in fact, an appealing school-age girl with magical opportunities to heal sick animals and broken toys, sometimes using techniques sourced to The Big Book of Boo-Boos. I rather liked her, when I located her in the toy aisle at Target, and may have to check my local listings for the show. Only when the kids come to visit, of course, ahem.

A Hex Bug Nano is not, as the name clearly suggests, an insecticide favored by Mork. It is a tiny robotized bug that leaps around in all sorts of startling movements, guaranteed to drive small males into spasms of laughter. (Caution: Prepare to restrain any nearby dog whose divine mission is to rid the house of ground-level invaders.) Proving the eternal truth of my daughter’s recent observation (“little boys are funny”), the adult-sized boy in front of me in the checkout line noticed the Hex Bug package on the conveyor belt and eyed it with clear interest. “Where’d you find that?” he asked.          hex bug 2 verticaql

And despite the amazing accomplishments of females like Doc McStuffins and the acclaimed new heroine of Star Wars, all girl lead characters in animated Disney blockbusters for children look sadly the same—wide-eyed, head full of long, luxurious hair, predictably curvaceous. But for her hair color, Frozen’s Anna is hardly distinguishable from Ariel, the Little Mermaid, or Belle of Beauty and the Beast. So you may think you are reaching for the same emblazoned items of yesteryear, but you are mistaken—unless you are shopping at your local flea market, among the antiques and collectibles. Animators, illustrators, listen up: We hereby summon you from your drawing boards and into the 21st century.

Although seriously annoying, these commercially-inflicted dilemmas pale in comparison to the age-old predicament that strikes terror in the heart of any parent who is raising an imaginative child. Such a case was shared the other day by a good friend whose niece has specified this Christmas wish: She wants a giraffe as tall as her room who can fly her anywhere she wants to go.

What are her parents to do, we ask with hearts that ache for them? There can be only one answer: Hand the entire conduct of the affair over to Santa Claus. May the Force Be With Him. And with all of us.

(Today’s Chronicle story is provided by a guest writer.)

They’re here! They’re here! I hear them on the other side of this door. Mom! Come open this door! I’ll keep shouting until you open up. You never come to the door fast enough. I like it when they come. Mom always shouts back for me to be quiet, but I won’t. It’s my job to monitor this door and announce arrivals, and I love it when we have company.

There are four of them that come together, but I particularly like the two Short Ones. Their hands are really close to the ground, like me, and I always smell lots of different stuff on those little fingers, like peanut butter and apples and cracker crumbs,, and sometimes I get in a quick lick and wash off a few bits before they laugh and back away. Sometimes they squeal and say NO!, but I don’t think they mean it, because I can usually get close and take another swipe. The key is to be patient.

MBhighchairAh, excellent. They’re going straight to the table. The strategy here is clear: Wait till they all sit down, and they never notice if I just creep underneath there, hang out quietly between all those shoes, and wait. Everyone drops stuff, but the two Short Ones are the best droppers who ever eat at our house. Everything they eat lands on the floor, and big pieces, too. And look! It’s those sliced things in boxes. I LOVE the crust on those things, but there’s other good stuff on them, too. Cheese, sausage…I’m drooling a little bit under here, waiting for it. Hope no one notices.

AND now’s my chance. The Shortest One is dangling her slice right down at my eye level. She’s talking to her mother, but I read this as her signal she wants me to have some. We share stuff a lot. (Sometimes it’s my idea, sometimes it’s hers.) Just a quiet step forward and THERE. Got my teeth in it, and it’s CHEESE! My favorite!

Now, just to back away carefully, very carefully. Oddly, the Shortest One won’t let go. Now everyone is shouting, I’m not sure what the ruckus is about, she invited me to take it, so I’ll just stay focused and keep my teeth where they are. Now the Shortest One is swatting at my nose, but not hard, it’s more like a pat, really, and people keep shouting, but some of that soft cheese is sliding into my mouth…OW! Mom’s got her hands around my jaw, prying it open. She’s telling me to Drop It! But Drop It never applied to cheese, is how I see it. I’m holding on…holding on…OW. Couldn’t hold my jaw shut; it was bite her or drop the pizza, and I can’t bite my Mom.

The Shortest One is crying now, and Mom said mean things and shooed me away from the table. Is this fair? The Shortest One didn’t want the pizza after I turned it loose, but they won’t give it to me, either. All that nice smelly cheese. Sigh. I don’t understand; she held it down there like she was serving me my piece. It all seemed so clear.

These Short Ones are harder to figure out; just when you think we’re friends, they scream and snatch stuff away. They pull on your ears, and step on your feet, and laugh at the look on my face. It’s exhausting, and humiliating. I need a nap.MBnap