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Usually it’s children who find it hard to sleep the night before Christmas. Two years ago, however, I had this problem myself, though not for visions of Santa and reindeer. My restlessness came from knowing that my daughter would likely be up during the night, busy as a North-Pole elf, baking special Christmas gifts for her father and me.
Sophie had started her unique holiday tradition three years earlier, when she was 14. As she went to bed that Christmas Eve in 2008, she secretly set her alarm for 2:30 a.m. When it went off — quietly, so only her young ears would hear — she tiptoed down to the kitchen and spent a couple of hours baking, cooling and wrapping a delicious coffee cake, from scratch.
Her gift presentation wowed us. She wrapped the cake in cellophane and tied it with a bow, then found an appropriately sized box with a lid. She wrapped the box and lid separately, so she could place the cellophane-wrapped cake inside, secure the lid, and tie it off with another lovely bow.
The next morning around the tree, she handed the box to us carefully, explaining we needed simply to untie the bow to remove the lid. And when we did, you could have knocked me over with a feather, as my dad used to say.
Hank and I loved the gift for two reasons. No. 1, it was cake. No. 2 and more important, it wasn’t a gift easily come by. It had required forethought, planning, work and — as if all that weren’t enough — loss of sleep.
That is a gift of the heart.
She did it again the next year, too. Stealing to the kitchen well after midnight, she made gingerbread-man-and-wife cookies. From scratch. She rolled out, cut, baked and decorated them. The next morning we were just as surprised as we had been the year before, as we’d thought surely she wouldn’t go through that exhausting routine again.
The next year, in 2010, one of our gifts to our daughter was the book “Christmas Day in the Morning,” based on the 1955 short story by Pearl S. Buck. It tells of a young boy’s special gift to his hard-working father. The boy rises at 2:45 on Christmas morning to milk the cows, thus sparing his dad that chore on the special holiday.
“The best Christmas gift I ever had,” the father tells his son when he discovers the milking already done. “I’ll remember it every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live.”
I knew just what he meant.
On the title page of the book, I’d written to Sophie: “When you read this story, you’ll know why we had to get it for you.”
And, once again, her gift to us was another made-from-scratch delicacy, this time cinnamon buns, my absolute favorite. These had required — in addition to the usual mixing, baking, cooling and frosting — time spent in the wee hours patiently waiting for the dough to rise.
So, by 2011, knowing almost certainly she’d be at it again, I found myself in a fretful half-sleep on the night before Christmas. There was a creature stirring, all right, but it wasn’t a mouse. Sophie made no clatter, but the aroma of her baking found its way into my dreams. When I’d half-wake and still smell the sweet scents, I didn’t know if they were real or I was still dreaming. This seemed to go on and on, throughout the night.
The next morning I learned why. Our daughter, alone in the kitchen, had made from scratch: (1) my favorite cinnamon buns; (2) her dad’s favorite, lemon-meringue pie; and (3) a couple dozen gingerbread cookies, to top it off.
We were dazzled.
Like most teens, Sophie values — and needs — her sleep. Still, she showed not a trace of the crankies that morning, instead beaming as we unwrapped one sweet dainty after another. I thought of the boy in the story, whose work on the morning of his Christmas surprise “went more easily than he had ever known it to before. Milking for once was not a chore. It was something else, a gift to his father who loved him.”
Children themselves are the real gift, of course, as any parent knows. Having them is like having Christmas every day of your life. When they make gestures like these, though, it’s special. You might call it the frosting on a sweet Christmas cake.
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer, a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat, loves all things traditional at Christmas. Leave a comment for her online, or contact her at email@example.com.