My friend takes the package from the mail carrier and brings it into the kitchen where we are sitting. Carefully, as we talk, she unwraps its outer layer, and catches pellets of packaging as they spill out.
Finally, she lifts out the gift-wrapped box and looks it over unhappily. "You know what this is?" she says to me reluctantly. "China."
"China?" In all the years that we have eaten together, there has never once been a china plate under our food. Her taste and her budget do not run to china and sterling. They run to stoneware and stainless.
"Look," she says and leads me sheepishly to a cupboard. She unzips two round quilted cases and exposes her secret: china plates, cups, saucers, 10 years of Christmas gifts stacked neatly.
A decade ago, she confesses, her mother-in- law gave her the first plate. Newly married, she pretended delight. Now, like clockwork, every Christmas she is presented with another addition. Like clockwork, every Christmas, she sends out another thank you note.
She can't find a way to cut through this tradition without shattering the older woman's feelings like ribbon candy under a knife. So, the notes pile up in her memory, evidence in a fraud case.
My friend is neither a weakling nor a flatterer, nor a liar. She is a woman who regularly and bluntly answers questions that trip the rest of us into politeness: "What did you think of him?" "How do you like my haircut?" Yet, even she has been boxed in by a gift.
If her story is extreme in its details, the theme is not. We use a complex currency for the exchange of gifts. We give and receive and measure the units of pleasure.
Many of us who unwrap presents, find our anticipation tinged by anxiety. We are, after all, the children who were trained to "say, thank you" to the great-aunt who gave us a book when we wanted ice skates. We grew up aware that we pleased our parents by our pleasure in their gifts. We learned to try not to disappoint others by our disappointment.
Now, more than anything, we hope for some meshing of desires, some union between giver and receiver. We feel mean-spirited, even ungrateful, if we don't like a present.
As my friend said, "I wanted to want what she wanted to give me."
This happens every day, with all sorts of offerings. We all know people whose gifts were genuine and generous and desperately mismatched. Parents who proudly present their children with an education or an occupation. Children who struggle against feelings of ingratitude, and thank their parents for lives they didn't want to lead.
I knew of a wife who treated her husband to elaborate gourmet meals. He felt compelled to praise her enterprise as he longed for simplicity. I knew a husband who put his wife on a pedestal. She didn't know how to tell him that she was more comfortable with parity.
Still, the problem is clearest when it comes, literally, in wrapping paper. My friend's hallway, like mine, is filled today with the gifts we have chosen for our families.
We have tried to unload our gifts of excess emotional weight. Some have been chosen from lists and requests. Others come with elaborate disclaimers. Most are attached to labels of origin, options of return.
We are not immune from the hope that we'll make a hit, find the right stuff. But we do not want our gifts to become burdens.
My friend looks at the box of china on the counter. The Christmas gift has come, year after year, with a vision attached like a string. Her mother-in-law sees the couple "entertaining guests." In fact, they "have friends over."
The two women, mother- and-daughter- in-law, care about each other. They share a desire to please one another. Yet the distance between them could be measured by this china deceit. Finally, after a decade, she reaches for her note paper. Maybe, it's time to end one yuletide tradition, and begin another.