The holiday season is synonymous with surprises—some delightful, some unpleasant and some extraordinarily difficult to keep secret. I don’t want to know who anyone draws for their secret Santa, and I’ve never once peeked at my own presents prior to Christmas morning for fear that the magic of Christmas would vanish.
But I haven’t always been so keen on keeping surprises, well, under wraps.
Just one year before I doomed my own brother to the naughty list, I decided that it was my turn to participate in the side of Christmas from which I had only known to benefit. I was in kindergarten, after all! If I was old enough to compose my own letter to Santa, certainly I was ready to start giving gifts like old St. Nick.
As it turns out, impersonating Santa Claus presents a bit of a challenge when you’re five years old and not equipped with a driver’s license, money or an elf-run toy shop. My gift-giving endeavors were limited to my available resources, which, at the time, consisted of a plastic dinosaur, a sparkly blue gel pen and a football keychain—pre-owned trinkets scrounged up from the crevices of our toy boxes, carefully wrapped in scraps of construction paper and lovingly placed under the Christmas tree no less than three weeks before the big day.
I suppose it’s truly the thought that counts.
Luckily, my kindergarten teachers-turned-elves had mastered the art of Pinterest-worthy crafts long before the virtual Hobby Lobby hit the web. Armed with a stash of sentimental, comic sans-scripted poems and a seemingly infinite quantity of art supplies, they took turns spreading layers of tempera paint on our tiny hands before positioning them just-so on 12 sheets of spiral-bound paper. When decorated with the appropriate crayon and googly-eye accents, our handprints evolved into clever artwork for each month of a calendar that was as timely as it was time capsule-y.
The notion of giving a gift that my family members didn’t already own inspired an overwhelming pride in my own craftsmanship, and I had to hand it to myself: This calendar would undoubtedly be the greatest Christmas present I had given to date. Never mind the fact that it shared a striking resemblance with the handprint calendar my preschooler self had gifted just one year before! This finger paint-scented treasure was the second volume in a timeless collection of literal handmade gifts that would eventually become dust-catchers in my box of elementary school memorabilia.
And besides—that old calendar was sooo 2002.
On the afternoon following my last day of school before winter break, I buckled into my car seat and clutched the handle of my hot pink Barbie backpack that contained a gift far more impressive than anything Santa’s own pack could carry. As my mom began rattling off questions about my day, I directed the conversation toward the most important matter at hand: I, Mallory Grace Golski, was practically the five-year-old version of Santa Claus himself.
“I made it myself!” I exclaimed, giddy with the anticipation of my mom’s reaction upon opening the calendar. As I continued raving about how much she would love her gift, the adrenaline-filled butterflies in my stomach took off in a spiraling, nonstop chatter until I blurted, “And you’ll never guess it’s a calendar!”
For a moment, I beamed with pride at my own secret-keeping genius—it was only a matter of time until my mom could tear open the package and delightedly show off her handy new gift to all who entered our home. The surprise was fantastic! It was major! It was… It was…
“Mallory,” my mom said as she glanced into the rearview mirror, cautiously making eye contact with me as she braced herself for my reaction upon catching my fatal slip-up. Slowly, my smile began to fade as I replayed our conversation over in my head: Amazing present… I made it myself… You’re going to love it… It’s a calendar… CALENDAR?!
Oh, yes. I wept.
“But, Mal,” my mother interjected, frantically searching for a way to remedy the catastrophe. “I don’t know what kind of calendar it is! Is it a cat calendar? Or a Barbie calendar?” My mom conjured up every calendar theme imaginable in hopes of maintaining any salvageable element of surprise, but it was no use. Not yet aware of the humor this situation would eventually hold, I admitted defeat, certain that I had ruined Christmas altogether—this Santa thing was harder than it looked.
Two years later, my then four-year-old brother, Bradley, came home from preschool carrying a festively-wrapped package and an impatient grin. Eager to place his gift underneath the Christmas tree, Brad began taunting my parents, insisting that they would never be able to guess what was hidden in the package. The scenario was all-too-familiar for my mother and me, and in retrospect, we should have played along, shaking the package in mock curiosity while placing outlandish guess about its contents.
But that would have been too predictable—Christmas, of course, is for surprises.
“Let me guess,” my mom shared a brief knowing glance with me, laughing as she alluded to my own slip-up. “It’s a calendar!”
Immediately, our reminiscence turned to déjà vu as the once-gleeful preschooler imploded into a fit of defeated sobs—it was, indeed, a calendar.
Perhaps that day was the start of my mother’s lifelong devotion to the digital calendar, and perhaps it was the day my brother vowed to never give another present as long as he lived. But that Christmas, we all learned that some gifts are better left as a surprise, and some unintended surprises make for better stories fifteen calendars later.