IT IS...the only gift you will get this Christmas, and the only gift you will receive.
It is why a pair of socks wrapped in green paper sounds so much like a dinosaur when shaken by a small boy.
It is a middle-aged man, teeth gritted and face darkly red, trying to remain nonchalant as a nubile young sales lady holds up two lacy undergarments and asks him to guess which one will fit his wife.
It is what makes him answer: "The small one."
It is the vaccination protecting a child's belief in Santa from the sound of familiar voices in the attic on Christmas Eve.
It is the scent of a crib warmed by a sleeping baby. It is the accompanying memory loss that makes a mother of teenaged children lean over that crib and wish she could do it again.
It is why the street person's hunger makes him sad instead of angry. And why the five-dollar bill you hurriedly shove into his shaking hand will be spent on a single Big Mac and a 12-pack of Milwaukee's Best.
It is the only reason a married man shaves before he comes to bed. It is why his wife believes he's just trying to improve his personal hygiene.
It is the sudden, listening stillness of a woman's kitchen at Christmastime when she hears the screen door latch, even though he hasn't come home in years.
It's what turns the dollar-store, slave-labor, nylon-haired knock-off into a Ballerina Barbie when touched by her 6-year-old fingers. It's what makes her father blink back a tear and silently promise to give her a real Christmas next year.
It is why he can't remember making the same promise when she was five.
It is the sole motivator for your brother-in-law to try deep frying a turkey. Especially after what happened last year.
It is why we can't imagine Christmas dinner without Grandma, and why Grandma sometimes looks up with a start when she hears her name. It's why she thought, just for a moment, that it was her mother calling.
It is why she isn't sure that it wasn't.
And when she has put your children to bed, stuffed the last bit of wrapping paper into a closet, taken the potpourri off the stove, turned out all the lights in your house and finally falls onto the sofa next to you — as you sit quietly with her before the glistening tree — it is the only thing that can convince you that she might love you half as much as you love her.
It is why she does.
It is the reason women weep. It is the reason men fail. It is why every child, at least once in his life, has wanted to cry at Christmas.
It is as precious as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. It is as painful as a flesh-torn hand and a thorn-crowned head. It is the reason for both.
And if every Santa song and earnest prayer, every sincere gift and imagined wrong, every Christmas dinner and New Year's toast, every unanswered invitation and unwelcome guest, every office party kiss and happy child's hug — if every human moment of the entire holiday season could be stripped of its tinsel and pretense and price tag and reduced to its truest essence, we would find it there, the only gift ever given at Christmas, the same gift passed hand to hand.
It is hope.
It is Christmas.
UPDATE: You can listen to a reading of this piece by my good friend and radio legend John Wrisley on the WTKK "on demand" page.