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Presents Roasting on an Open Fire

Christmas shopping for Ryan, and for me, is like a bonfire of the vanities.

We enter marketplaces, boutiques, Target, or the dark side of la-la land, otherwise known as, where we squint to ascertain whether items, ranging from $9.98 to $119.99, are total garbage or potentially divine. In his real-life 15th-century bonfire of the vanities, Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola burned manuscripts and paintings any art-lover today would self-sacrifice to save, but he, the Franciscan brother, and we, 21st century heathens, are similarly hell-bent on an appraisal of the material world.

Very little separates the zealots from the pagans. On a planet overstocked with earthly things, we are all just wondering, how can we predict which objects might rise to the level of sacred?

And what does the price tag say?

Ryan’s favorite words as we shop are junk, rubbish, trash, and waste. Nevertheless, we keep hunting, lifting games, toys, and novelties from shelves to weigh their essence. Online we click through hundreds of reviews. Star ratings are tea leaves from the Internet plaza.

Sometimes while shopping, I get mad at Ryan: “How come everything I touch is junk, and everything you touch is treasure?” He is far more likely to appraise my merchandise as not worthy. He prefers his own ideas.

But in other moments, we root ourselves in a thought, firmly and confidently together, imagining Fern’s or Gustav’s delight.

Nine hours after our first full day shopping, we design a spreadsheet by hand at the Gardina’s bar top: five rows (one per child); and three columns (stockings, Santa, us). As we reconcile our children’s lists, which include everything from Taylor Swift’s new album (do-able) to a trampoline with a diving board (reckless and not do-able), brandy and Christmas fatigue render us stupefied, and we vow to start up again tomorrow.

Earlier this fall, one of Ryan’s clients, a guy named Troy, burned a trailer-load of his ex-wife’s possessions in a yard fire. After they’d broken up, Troy loaded Heather’s furniture and of all things, Barbie dolls and dollhouses – collectors’ items, she called them – into a storage unit on wheels, but eventually, his buddy needed the trailer back.

Troy told Heather he’d drive the trailer to her new house, but she needed to recruit people to unload it, a condition she refused. “Just keep all my stuff, then,” she said. “And stick it all up your ass.”

Troy emptied out the trailer in his back yard, and in true Boy Scout fashion, the guy chopped the end tables and sofa into firewood and lit up the Barbie dolls’ hair as tinder. Everything Heather left behind burst into flames.

Christmas shopping feels this way. It’s like blasting open a bank vault with a stick of dynamite. Every single dollar might go up in flames, no value added. The kids might be bored, confused, or worst of all, disappointed when they rip open the goods.

Threatening our kids with fire at Christmastime, as it happens, is an age-old tradition. If not coal in stockings, the latest rage on Facebook is parents hurling wrapped boxes into fireplaces. “You’d better behave, or else,” they say, snickering quietly. We might as well throw real gifts into the flames. So much money spent on things, things, things.

Materialism is the opposite of sacred, except, of course, when it isn’t.

This past summer, a family friend emptied out my mom’s basement for a garage sale. She unearthed totes upon boxes of junk, and I began to feel oppressed by the weight of rubbish, when unexpectedly, in a slow-motion parting of clouds, Christ revealed to the Magi, I laid eyes on my mom’s stained-glass terrarium. I hooked my index finger into the ring of the carillon tower, pulling it loose from the other junk, and I stared into it. Empty and dusty, the terrarium still managed to emanate golden olive-dappled light. This glass house was once home to dirt, moss, and a fawn figurine. Throughout my childhood, it was a centerpiece on the buffet behind our dining room table. Nothing in years had transported me back to the wonder of being a little girl as this terrarium did.

Sacred may mean “holy” or “hallowed,” but it also means “transcendent.” This object – this material thing – allowed me to transcend space and time. It now rests on my dining room table. The terrarium – the fact that it takes shape and exists, solid and wrought – comforts me as prayers might comfort others.

And on Christmas day, 1912, my great-grandmother, Nellie Elspeth Nelson, received (from whom I can’t be sure) a gold bangle bracelet engraved as follows: N.E.N. Dec. 25 1912. She gave this bracelet to my grandma, Jean, who gave it to me. This wristlet is a rosary I palpate, a gift that is neither rubbish nor waste.

Whoever paid for the bangle back in 1912 spent wisely, though at the time, he or she could not have predicted.

To this day, Irie, age 13, needs her blankets, knitted by her “umma,” and Leo won’t part with Chicken, his favorite stuffed animal. Fern has so ardently loved certain dresses, we’ve cut them into tank tops or headbands to keep them around, as she grew. We’ve read books so many times, they’re riddled with teeth marks. Every year, children make their lists, and I make mine: all the sacred things I’d save, according to the most common “what if” scenario: If your house were on fire, what possessions would you rescue?

Tonight, I have asked Ryan to build a fire in our fireplace. Mine, to be honest, never last. No matter how I stack the kindling, or how flammable my tinder, I can never scrounge up enough scraps to keep the little pyre aflame.

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