Redemption, the act of being saved from error, sin or evil, is not always a great, substantial event. Sometimes it occurs as just a tiny burst of illumination, come and gone as unexpectedly and fleeting as a butterfly alighting for a second on your knee. If you're looking in the wrong direction, you miss it.
Recently I experienced just such a moment of redemption at a Christmas Yankee Swap party, the kind at which everyone brings a wrapped present to be opened one by one. The only rule is that as you pick your present, you can swap it for any other gift already opened.
Very good or very bad swap presents create the most fun because you can give or get either. Some years ago I was invited to a Yankee Swap and ended up, amid much snickering, with a jigsaw puzzle of a massively overweight, naked man holding a strategically placed wash cloth as he climbed out of a claw-footed bathtub. When I divulged the next year that I had thrown it away in disgust, everyone was horrified. Apparently the puzzle was a beloved tradition that had been passed around for years.
So this week, I arrived late at a Christmas party with artist and writer friends as the Yankee Swap began, and I just had time for a quick sip of wine before my name was called to pick a present. Opening it I discovered a charming, bright 4”X6” pastel original signed by a friend. I loved it and immediately began thinking where to place it.
Several gifts later someone opened a picture frame for a 25th wedding anniversary. “I’m divorced,” she declared. “This is definitely getting passed on." She walked around the room looking over the opened gifts, then stopped in front of me to examine the little pastel.
"Sorry," she said, grinning as she claimed it and handed me the wedding anniversary picture frame. I smiled as I gave it up, mildly disappointed, however, in the spirit of things I liked knowing the new owner would enjoy it and decided to ask the artist for another one of her prints.
Then it hit me. I was replaying an old sad tape but I finally got the ending right. This was a moment of redemption.
Years ago, the first Christmas after my husband and I ended a 20-year marriage I was at a party for new singles. I hated my unwelcome new identity and every Christmasy reminder of the changes in my life. At the event’s Yankee Swap I drew a set of Christmas candleholders, colorful little wooden baby blocks that spelled out "Merry Christmas." I was delighted and began thinking where I could place them. The game was nearly over when a swapper came up to me, holding out her gift to me.
But I couldn’t hand mine over. I felt close to crying at relinquishing the one good thing at this miserable occasion. She was an older woman. She looked into my face and immediately saw my distress. "You want to keep it, don't you?" I nodded, mortified but helpless to deny it. "I'll pick something else," she said to me quietly, and moved on. I felt ashamed, acting like a child who refused to share, but, still, relieved to keep the blocks and grateful that more had not been asked of me.
So, this week, decades later, I am again at a Christmas Yankee Swap and the gift I was so pleased to receive was again being taken. But this time I laughed as I handed it over, my vulnerability and fragility long gone. It felt good to respond as I wished I had years ago. I had been given another chance to get it right.
Today as I took out the little wooden blocks I’ve always associated with a Christmas kindness and my own frailty, I felt somehow cleansed, unburdened. I thought of the deep wisdom of the Shaker song’s lyrics that say “by turning, turning, we come round right.” So I had and so it has.
Redemption, like other fine gifts, can arrive in very small packages.