I always get a chuckle out of the promotional materials I receive around the first of December offering me some “last minute shopping ideas” for Christmas.

    Last minute? At the first of December? Obviously, these people don’t understand how things work with me.

    But this year has been a little different, in that I have managed to get something of a jump on the Christmas list. Doing so has involved a series of short shopping excursions, focusing on just one or two people at a time instead of becoming overwhelmed at looking for everything needed for everyone all at once.

    It struck me that shopping for Christmas gifts in December – even for those of us who wait until “the last minute” on Dec. 1 – is not much different that shopping at any other time of the year.

    Well, there are the crowds, and the trouble finding a parking place close the entrance of the store or mall, and the red and green decorations. Still, when you get to the bottom line, you’re still choosing among a selection of clothes, colognes, toys, electronics, nuts and candies and gift cards that are available any day of the year.

    The difference, of course, is that you are shopping while thinking not about your wants, but rather about what other family members and friends would like to receive. Then, you wrap all those gifts in pretty paper and decorate them with bows and such, and place them carefully under a beautifully decorated tree that, for a these few weeks at the end of each year, occupies a place of honor in homes and offices throughout the land.

    This concept of thinking about others even extends to people we don’t know. Programs to provide needy youngsters with toys at Christmas spring into action, and food banks become the focus of many charitable projects. Christmas spurs people into doing things they know they should be doing, and perhaps would like to be doing, all year long, but for some reason, can’t or don’t.

    Then, when all the shopping is done and the giving is finished, families endure trying circumstances and hurdle severe obstacles (otherwise known as airports during the holidays) to be together on Christmas Day, and to watch each other open those presents which were so carefully selected. Along the way, another chapter of pleasant memories (hopefully) is created.

    In our family – the one in which I grew up – one of those memories involves the Christmas when I was 4 years old. My father had just gotten a reel-to-reel tape recorder (young people may need to “Google” the term) and we had a semi-permanent record of what went on. I say semi-permanent, because the device eventually broke, and it was replaced by newer technology like a cassette recorder, and our ability to listen to the tape was pretty much lost.

    But we listened to it often enough for me to remember that it was a Roy Rogers Christmas for me. Everything from toy six-shooters to a hat, a shirt and a phonograph (Google it again) that played “Happy Trails to You” was under the tree that Christmas.

    Santa’s biggest score, however, was a 30-gallon shiny aluminum trash can with a huge red ribbon tied around it. It seems that Mother had offhandedly mentioned that the house needed a new one, and somehow Santa heard it and fulfilled her “wish.”

    A certain preschool boy in the household was amazed at this development, and as a result, his belief in Santa Claus was secured for years to come. I couldn’t understand, though, why Mother wasn’t as excited as I was. She actually seemed upset.

    I didn’t know it then, but that was an extreme example of what filling in blanks on a Christmas list is all about. Much of what we give is routine – pajamas, candy, various edibles, sweaters and (the ultimate insult to our children) underwear. But when it’s specifically selected and lovingly given in a festive package, it becomes special.

    And so it is with the things we give each other throughout the year, although we might not notice it because the packaging isn’t there. Friends give each other their time and concern. Children give their parents love and respect, even when we don’t always deserve it. And in the best of circumstances, parents give their children lessons in ethics and virtue even as they arrange for them to learn piano, karate or (let’s say) golf.

    This Christmas, it’s wise to remember that the most important presents can’t be put inside a box, wrapped with colored paper and put under a tree. Giving and receiving such gifts throughout the year certainly make these other ones you unwrap on Dec. 25 a lot like icing on the cake.

Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.