The Surprise Christmas Gift – Dadding with Distinction
About Dec. 21 the date circled on the calendar is finally within a few turns of the clock. Christmas vacation. Kids out of school. Parents off work. Presents bought. Tree lit. Vacation bound.
And then our oldest proclaims, that night, his heart’s fondest desire: “For Christmas, more than anything, I’d love to have a guitar.”
With three shopping days left.
With wish lists previously communicated.
With presents bought.
With them practically wrapped.
It’s enough to make you really believe the season is nuts, that the bustle is burdensome, that tide is rising, that we’re all going under.
And then you breathe.
And you remember: the joy you felt, thirty years ago, as a kid with a hot wish on Christmas. Against all the NO broadcast to you each and every day. At school. With friends. At home. You had a hot wish. And whether or not you believed in a fat, merry old elf, you believed in Christmas. And the possibilities under the tree.
And so, while we responded, at first, with stunned silence. Then murmured: “You’ve got your trombone already, buddy. And piano, too. Why don’t you concentrate on those?” And followed up with, more strongly, “It’s December twenty-first. But that’s a nice wish.” I tried to remember: that kid. That hot wish. That belief in Christmas.
And to go a bit gentler. To reassure him, gentler: “That’s awesome, buddy. Cool. I bet you’d really enjoy learning the guitar.”
Though kids are quick. And he’d already picked up on the stunned silence. The hesitancy. The negotiation.
So we let it die for a night.
Jonah’s Hot Wish: A Christmas Guitar: Granted
The next morning, though, my inner elf was fairly jingling. I grabbed my middle son, Ben, in order to demonstrate a little Christmas magic, and headed for Guitar Center, with a few stops at the mall and Target.
Christmas as a kid, for me, was a big blinding explosion the day of the 25th. Yes, we paid all due heed to the “reason for the season:” our traditions in the Moravian Church in Ohio were rich, with each special Sunday service that Advent, and Christmastime pageants, and hanging of the greens in the sanctuary and constructing the putz, and of our centuries-old candlelit Christmas Eve vigil (you’re welcome, other Protestant churches). But back home, there was magic awaiting in our stockings and under the tree.
We didn’t have sacks and sacks full of money, growing up. My parents both worked, and worked hard, for every cent that went into the clothing on our backs and the wheels beneath our feet. We didn’t expect much at Christmas. But they wanted Christmas to be magical for us. And come morning, we were bowled over and convinced: Santa was real. And that we were loved.
Thirty, forty years later, that’s an awkward distillation of what I felt as a kid. But felt it I did. That above all, there was a possibility that what I yearned for wasn’t impossible. That on that special day, anything might be found under the tree.
So I wasn’t ready to dismiss Jonah’s wish as a matter of inconvenience. Or of extravagance. We had the means. And the knowledge: being a musician, I could ask the right questions, put together the right package of instrument and lessons. As a parent, I feel called to listen to what my son is interested in — Christmas or not — and open the way for him to pursue his passions. If some of that spark can be delivered on Christmas, OK. Let’s go!
But I also decided to have a little fun with it.
So, Ben and I made our way to Guitar Center. I picked through the starter guitars, a lot of them cheap, and plasticized. And I asked about models a step or two up. What I’d need with them. What constituted a good guitar. I’m a piano player, I only know from furniture, I guess.
I decided on an Epiphone Les Paul Special II with flamed maple top and mahogany body and neck. The classic rock round you get out of a Les Paul, along with the Humbucker pickups and their tendency for clear highs and deep lows convinced me this was a great starter instrument for Jonah. The tone and volume knobs, along with the three-way pickup switch, seem enough for him to fiddle with before he gets any inkling of whammy bars and Stratocasters.
Hey, one day, right?
I liked that we chose a guitar ala carte, instead of part of a beginners’ kit. After all, I had a big amp at home, and multiple patch cables, and an always-in-tune synthesizer to bring his six strings into pitch. I ponied up for a padded case and picks, and Ben chose a lightning bolt guitar strap. We were in business.
Just one rule I imparted to Ben, finger to the side of my nose, ala Santa: we weren’t breathing a word of this to Jonah!
Dad Has Never Heard of Guitar Center, Honestly
I remembered how my parents kept Santa magical for me, well into my late single digits. They always wrote in scraggly, jaggly writing on packages from the jolly fat man, swore profound surprise at what he offloaded under our tree. Even hired a rent-a-Santa, one Christmas, to come visit us at our house and gift us the Chipmunk dolls we didn’t even know we wanted, right about the time I was getting wise.
To this day they swear they don’t know who that guy was.
So I had some precedent for giving Christmas that extra sheen. In this case, I intended to make up, slightly, for our reticence when Jonah first announced his wish by bowling him over, pulling out all the stops.
That meant saving his present for absolute last. Stashing it away in a closet in his Nana’s hotel room, apart from all the other presents. Letting him and his brothers open all their other goodies first, get to playing with them, get to thinking, even, of the present he didn’t end up seeing, before the big reveal.
But Jonah threw another curve at us first.
It seemed that, after days of seemingly forgetting his guitar wish, at least part of the way down to Kansas City, he was talking guitar with his Nana. And then, when we’d passed a Guitar Center in Overland Park, he started quizzing me, Christmas Eve, as we tried to find a restaurant open in the city without a two-hour wait.
“Dad, can we go to Guitar Center?”
What’s Guitar Center? I asked.
Dad, do you think it’s open?
Oh, no I don’t think it’s open. IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE.
Can’t we just stop by and look?
Jonah, I know you want a guitar. That’s great! But don’t they, like, cost tens of thousands of dollars? Maybe something for you to save up for. A lot of my friends, I know, seemed to start when they were 20 or 25. Thirty-five, even.
Yeah, I laid it on thick. Had him only soberly moping. And then, nearly blew it as I was idly scrolling through some pics on my phone, which is like a magnet to kids in the “Swipe Right Generation,” and I scrolled past the quick shot of the guitar I snapped the day I bought it, texting it to my wife with a DELETE THIS disclaimer.
Jonah: “Oh, that’s a guitar.”
Me: What? Oh, I don’t think so.
And then promptly changed the subject and it didn’t come up again, fortunately, rest of the meal.
Well, the big day came. And the kids headed down the hall to their Nana’s room, where I’d stashed the guitar in the closet as planned. And opened their sweatshirts, and socks, and sweatpants, and puzzles, and books. And then: I got up, looked all around, announced that there may be a present missing, that, yeah, there definitely was.
And then brought it out to him.
By then he was seated, and maybe caught up, hopefully caught up in the whole elaborate surprise vibe. But whether he was or wasn’t, I guess, didn’t matter the moment the unzipped the case and gazed on what I sincerely wish will be his true love the next several years as he learns it and makes it sing in his own way.
A bit of an unbalanced, weighty wish for a Dad to make, I guess. But in its way, like love, a fine thing to bet on.