Dan Conradt: Finding the gift to be a great fit

December 30, 2018

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Uh … yeah,” I said, mentally crossing my fingers to ward off the effects of my fib. “It’s very Christmasy.”

“Hold it up so everyone can see it.”

I folded back several crinkly sheets of tissue paper and lifted it out of the box.

“That’s really nice,” someone said. It was a polite way of saying “It’s really nice that Dan got it and I didn’t.”

It was the ugliest sweater I’d ever seen, a cardigan in a lurid shade of green that Crayola would have rejected, and that couldn’t possibly happen in nature. The collar and cuffs were a snow-white cottony material that was probably supposed to represent … well, snow. The entire thing was decorated with Santa heads with rosy cheeks, snowmen with oversized carrot noses and cross-eyed reindeer wearing stocking caps, and tying it all together was a meandering string of brightly-colored Christmas lights.

It was long before ugly sweaters had become a gag or a fashion statement … they were just ugly. And this one raised the bar to a whole new level.

“I put a gift receipt in the box, in case you want to take it back.”

In the spirit of Christmas, I slipped my arms into the sleeves, buttoned the shiny red buttons and adjusted the fuzzy collar to minimize neck tickle.

“Just don’t spill anything on it,” I told myself. “And whatever you do, don’t lose the receipt …”

Line and Linus

The sign hanging over the counter read “Customer Service / Returns / Refunds.”

It was two days after Christmas, and the clerks’ smiles were starting to look forced.

I stepped into the shortest line, and there were still six people ahead of me. I was standing behind a guy holding a box just like mine.

“Sweater?” he asked.

“Uh-huh. You?”

“Yeah. Your mom?”

“Uh-huh. You?”

“Yup. I kinda feel bad returning it. I mean, it’s the thought that counts and everything, but …” and he shrugged an “it’s too ugly to wear” shrug.

“I can help someone down here,” another clerk barked, removing a “closed” sign from a space at the far end of the counter. There was a mini-stampede as half a dozen people moved into the new line. They were all men and … except for the guy holding a ceramic cookie jar shaped like a pig wearing a chef’s toque and holding a wooden spoon … they were all carrying shirt boxes.

“Next!” a clerk said. My line inched forward. There were still three guys in front of me, and now there were also four behind me.

I slipped the cover off my box and folded back the tissue paper. A cross-eyed reindeer looked up at me. I thought of mom walking through the store, looking for just the right gift, and in the back of my mind I heard Charlie Brown’s friend Linus:

“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really.”

Christmas spirit

You know, it’s not such an ugly sweater. It’s kind of unique, really. It IS nice and warm. And it sure is Christmasy …

“Next!” the clerk said, and the line inched forward.

“I think I’m going to take the money and get a Vikings’ stocking cap,” the guy in front of me said. “They’ve got a big tub full of ’em by the front door.”

Mom probably walked past them when she came in to buy my sweater …

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

I stepped out of line and wandered aimlessly around the store, past discounted tins of holiday popcorn, bins of hypoallergenic pillows, stacks of no-stick cookware, racks of chenille bathrobes and a table full of stocking stuffers that had been marked down to three dollars each before Christmas, and were now selling for a buck.

I ended up in the men’s department.

Twenty minutes later I walked out with my Christmas sweater and a tie in a previously undiscovered shade of brown that looked surprisingly good with the sweater.

I think I’ll wear them to church on Sunday, and if anyone asks I’ll tell them that the sweater was a gift from my mom.

It’s the thought that counts.

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