The Wrapping Paper

Of all my Christmas memories, there is one that stands out among the rest. It happened in Budapest several years ago. The Boy Scouts from my school were going to throw a Christmas party at a local orphanage. I’d help chaperone. The children at the orphanage were all preschool age and had severe hearing disabilities. Our Scouts were one of the first groups of foreigners these children would meet.

photo by Lennart Guillet

When we arrived at the orphanage, we drove the van through an old rusted iron gate into a courtyard. The building was large and gray. It looked unloved. The director greeted us at the door. Her name was Erzsébet. Elizabeth. When we stepped inside, we removed our hats and scarves and kicked snow off our shoes. Tall white iron radiators crackled as we walked down the hall. Erzsébet escorted us into a room where at least twenty-five young children sat waiting on crowded wooden benches. Their feet didn’t reach the floor.

As we gathered in the room, the orphans chattered and pointed and wiggled in their seats as young ones do whenever a visitor whom they have been waiting for walks in. Their teachers sat close by against the wall. Erzsébet stood in front of the children and introduced us.

Soon the party began. After eating our treats and exchanging Christmas songs, the Scouts started handing out the gifts they had brought. The children squealed and ran their fingers over the shiny paper and played with the bows. They hugged their gifts and showed their friends.

Suddenly Erzsébet drew in her breath sharply.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

She closed her eyes and shook her head.

“What’s wrong?” I repeated.

Covering her mouth, Erzsébet leaned over to me and began to whisper. Her voice was shaky. “They…they don’t know there’s anything inside the packages.”

I snapped my gaze at the children. They were all laughing and pointing and holding up their new bundles, but none was opening a single one. My heart jumped into my throat. The wrapping is present enough. I looked over at the other teachers. A few were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. They realized what was happening, too.

Then Erzsébet stepped over to the children. With watery eyes, she smiled and clapped her hands. They looked up at her and stopped talking. Very gently, Erzsébet began to speak.

“Gyerekek, a csomagban van valami.” Boys and girls, there is something underneath the paper, she told them. The older kids’ eyes widened. But the little ones didn’t understand. Erzsébet picked up one of the presents and pointed to the inside. “Nézzetek csak, ebben van valami,” she repeated. “There is something in it.”

Gasps filled the room as the entire group looked down at their gifts. I expected the kids to immediately start ripping open their packages, but none did. They must be waiting for permission to open them, I thought. But no one was speaking.

Then, realizing what she needed to do, Erzsébet knelt down beside one little girl and started showing her how to unwrap her present. The others looked on. My lips parted but no words came out. They don’t know what to do with the paper. They’ve never unwrapped  presents before.

For a second I stood there motionless. Then, together with the other teachers and the Scouts, I got down on my knees and helped tiny hands open their gifts.

 

52 thoughts on “The Wrapping Paper

  1. Very touching. I begin my day with a cuppa, tears in my eyes and warmth in my heart. I will be thinking of shiny wrapping paper all day. :o )

  2. Oh, Phil, I love this story. You tell it so well that I can just SEE those little faces. How blessed we are. Thank you.

  3. Beautiful and indeed a heart-tugging story. With the holiday season right around the corner, I can’t think of a better story to share with my 11-year-old son and his friends than The Wrapping Paper!

  4. Such a contrast to how most children tear off the paper without appreciating that wrapping. It kind of makes me sad that they opened them at all. After they were opened, they no longer had the beautiful shiny presents they were enjoying! You can’t have your present and unwrap it too, I suppose…Thanks for the lovely story, Phil! Those were the innocent days!

  5. Absolutely perfect way to start the holiday season: a reminder to enjoy every part of the gifts we are given. I very much appreciate all the gift that we have been given in you, Phil, writer, teacher, person extraordinaire!

  6. This story was a beautiful gift worth unwrapping! I am so touched! I love how you see the world and am so grateful that you are able to share your vision with heart, and the simplicity of choosing just the right words and putting them in the right places. Thank you, Phil!

  7. Kinda puts things in perspective for the upcoming holidays… sometimes the best gifts are the ones we tend to overlook. :)

  8. Thank you so much, Phil, for this wonderful story! My daughter (16) read and loved it instantly as well.
    We immediately thought of the little boy who, many-many years ago, came to visit Hungary for the first time from among the Csángó people (have you heard of them?) He stayed at my parent’s. A day went by when my mom realized that upon leaving the boy in the bathroom he just stood there without knowing what to do… they did not have a bathroom where he came from…Also, he never tasted hot cocoa before, nor enjoyed butter. After realizing all this, my parents made sure that he enjoyed a hot bath every single day while sipping “kakaó” as sweet and rich as possible….
    Blessed holiday season, please let me know if you have some ideas how we could help some kids in Budapest’s 8th district I have just learned about…I am thinking of offering 10% of my Xmas Bazaar results to put together some amount for whatever they need.

    Thank you again, and congratulations on your great website!
    Adrienne

  9. What a lovely story Phil! Last year my daughter helped at a local shelter for women and children – she brought arts and crafts so they could write a letter to Santa or make a Hannukah or Kwanzaa card or whatever worked for them. She also donated gifts to put under the tree. We take so much for granted – it was obvious to her how special it was for some of them just to have art supplies to use to write a letter, let alone open a gift from under the tree. Thanks for a great seasonal reminder to put our holidays in perspective.

  10. What a sweet story. I’ve had students take their school gift home to have something to open on Christmas Day….we don’t always acknowledge how lucky we are.

  11. Phil,
    I cannot thank you enough for all of the stories you have shared about your classroom through your books. I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade and after graduating in May and searching for a job. I am finally doing my dream job after being hired about a month into school this year (K/1 split). I started reading your stories after I found 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny at the local library my junior year of high school. I have shared them with so many people and they have made so many people smile. I am try to find a funny a day and now and again I say I had a Philip Done moment. (When a student sees a spider crawling on the carpet and they have to scream and shout about it =) or the funny things they say. I had one say that a girl wanted to be an Alientologist (she meant paleontologist) or when someone looses a tooth) One of those moments you just have to enjoy for the moment and see it as a teaching moment instead of an interruption. Those moments are what make life enjoyable. So with all this to say, I want to say thank you! The stories you share are a great encouragement when things are tough. I am truly blessed to be a teacher!
    P.S. Any special advice for a new teacher?

  12. Thank you so very much for this post……..Very touching…………My Grandmother was born in Budapest and I will share this with her. She will love it as much as I did.
    Blessings

  13. Oh Phil —Terrific story. I live with you while I read it. Love your
    details “their feet didn’t reach the floor,” etc. That gave us a picture
    of the ages and size of the children. Please keep this up and tell us many
    more TENDER stories…we need them!

  14. Another gem, although I must admit this one touched my heart in particular. Seasonally charming in such a Phillip Done way. Wishing that the innocence of that first Christmas could remain in their hearts forever, perhaps in some ways it may. My daughter’s first “real” Christmas when she was 2 played out in a surreal way. She came down the stairs, bleary-eyed and sat in front of the package-laden tree and just stared at all of the gifts for hours. We had to tell her that Santa had come down the chimney and left them for her because she had been such a good girl that year. She cocked her head in disbelief, proceeded to get up, find a flashlight and search up the chimney for any sign of the jolly man. It was literally 4 or 5 in the afternoon before the first gift was unwrapped. Now that she is 8 and that “innocence” has slightly eroded (sniff, sniff), Christmas is slightly different, but that memory remains in my heart, as I am sure that day in that orphanage will remain firmly implanted in yours forever. As with all of your wonderful stories, please never stop sharing. Keep the “door” to your brain open for all of us to vicariously experience your life. It, by all accounts is magical. Have a magical Christmas!

  15. Phil dear: I awakened this morning feeling lousy due to illness. Read your Blog, shed a tear or two and cancelled my pity party. When will your next book be published? I have the other two. How proud I am to call you a friend!

  16. I read this at 6.30 this morning, I had tears falling down my face, it made me feel so very humble!! I will be reading this to Adam this evening, thank you for sharing this Phil!!

  17. I do believe that one day the whole human kind will understand the true meaning of life which in my understanding is the love. We live once, fast, unrepeatable and unstoppable. The best thing to give and get is the feeling that other people need us, count on us, trust us. That’s when we do matter. That’s what love is. That’s “the point” …The rest is just the wrapping. Loved the story. Thanks for sharing. Merry Xmas.

  18. Phil, I meant to write you a comment on this when I read it but I stopped to read it to my son. It even made a “cool” 12 yr. old misty eyed! Just beautiful. Have a wonderful Christmas!

  19. Dear Mr. Done,
    I love your stories. They are great. The story of the wrapping paper was very interesting. I never realized there are kids that don’t know what to do with the wrapping paper. I feel very sorry for those kids that they have never had such a wonderful present before.

    Jill

  20. Wow. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story. I read it to my daughters tonight. When I came to the sentence, ‘What’s wrong?’ all the noise in the room stopped. They gathered around me to really listen. We were all touched, and hopefully a little more humble and full of gratitude and compassion.

  21. Thank you for sharing this Philipp, we tend to forget how blessed we are and how much obligation we have towards others whose life is so much harder.

  22. I’ve recently found your site, and now going through each of your stories one by one toward the oldest ones. Some brought me serious laughter, some made me think deep, but this one, this is just the story that brings tears into a grown man’s eyes. Thank you, for this, and for all of the stories talking about true values, even when telling casual situations.

  23. I grew up in Hungary, our presents were never wrapped. They just sat at the bottom of our Christmas tree. Perhaps it’s not customery to wrap presents in Hungary?

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