What are your favorite Christmas moments? It’s a wonderful question that gets the conversation off crazy crowds, eating too much, and Uncle Lou’s bad breath.

I have three, actually…

A good friend, one of the kindest, gentlest humans I’ve ever known, Steve Tyra, was Santa in the mall and at private parties every year from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas day.  He had the girth, beard, and long hair naturally. And the heart. He dyed his hair, beard, and eyebrows white and put on his Santa suit and became Santa. For real. Every year for maybe a decade we’d have breakfast toward the end of his stint. He’d report on all the most popular toys, having done the best market research you could possibly imagine. But he also shared the wishes of many kids whose lives were more consumed by a sick parent, brother, or sister, or a parent in prison or off at war than the latest toy. My heart always broke at our breakfasts, but was always somehow fuller when I left. I will always cherish those times with Steve. Steve died way too early, but I think of him often, especially now.

I also remember, like it was yesterday, the chill in the Arizona air when I ran outside to play with the most amazing toy in the world. I was probably nine. The sound of the caps when I fired my toy snub-nosed .38 (with a shoulder holster!). And how the cheap, hard plastic of the holster bit into my skin as I ran around killing bad guys.

Desperate to show off my treasure I went in search of a friend. I found a kid I knew but didn’t hang around with. He would have to do. His eyes lit up; my present was precisely what he wanted but didn’t get. He grabbed me and dragged me to his house to show his dad. He said something like hey dad, THIS is the gun I wanted! His dad said something like aw, that’s just a bunch of cheap plastic, you don’t want that. Then he showed me his present: a top. One of those wooden things you wind string around, throw, and if you’re lucky, it spins for a while. THEN he showed me his room. A single bed and tiny dresser separated from the house by a screen.

If you’re hoping for the end of this story to be my taking off the holster and giving the kid my gun, well, you would be wrong. I didn’t. I felt bad, but remained my middle-class, selfish, twerpy self.

Fast forward to a few years ago. We were with friends at Christmas day dinner and I asked a slightly different question: best Christmas present? We were all Baby Boomers except my friend’s 95 year-old father who grew up on a Midwestern homestead. Our best gift memories were obvious for our generation: Sting-Ray bike with a banana seat; Easy-Bake oven; Barbie’s complete Malibu Pad; etc. When we got to the father he hesitated, he didn’t really want to answer. We pressed and then he simply and plainly said something like oh, I don’t know, probably my first pair of new shoes. You could have heard a pin drop.

I think about how lucky I have been. The message for me throughout all these moments: “There but for the grace of God go I”. And what am I going to do with my good luck and good grace? That may be a more important question we ask ourselves, you and me.