This Christmas Gift Comes Back Every Time You Return It

In the UK, Dec. 26th is known as Boxing Day, a more relaxed extension of Christmas Day where banks close and folks take another day off to spend with (or recover from) family and friends.

In Ireland, the 26th is called St. Stephen’s Day, with much the same relaxed schedule.  Once upon a time, “Wren Boys” would go out and stone to death wrens (just as poor old St. Stephen took it on the noggin, apparently), carrying the dead birds door to door in exchange for treats.

That tradition has died, much to the wrens’ delight, but the lasting tradition remains: eating holiday leftovers, enjoying family, connecting with friends or, for the misanthropes in the crowd, reading a book in peace.

Here in the States, it’s mostly a returns day, wherein people brave the roads and stores to return ill-fitting, ill-conceived, or just ill-looking clothes to beleaguered returns cashiers.

But really, let’s dial it back to the best part of Christmas gatherings: not the materialism, not the madness of keeping six dishes cooked and hot for serving, not the excessive drinking (euphemism: “cheer”), but the connections and reconnections made with family.

This emphasis is captured by Gary Short in his poem “Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day.” It’s one humble poem, focused on simple things that really matter. And though it’s a football that’s being caught, Short is really trying to capture a certain je ne sais quoi about brotherhood — the blood ties that bind.

Je ne sais quoi-ing” is what good poetry does, no? Let’s unwrap this box and take a look:


Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day
by Gary Short

Only a little light remains.
The new football feels heavy
and our throws are awkward
like the conversation of brothers
who see each other occasionally.
After a few exchanges,
confidence grows,
the passing and catching
feels natural and good.
Gradually, we move farther apart,
out in the field,
the space between us
filling with darkness.

He leads me,
lofting perfect spirals
into the night. My eyes
find the clean white laces of the ball.
I let fly a deep pass
to his silhouette.
The return throw
cannot be seen,
yet the ball
falls into my hands, as if
we have established a code
that only brothers know.


The last two lines of the first stanza are the surprise you get when lifting a box’s lid and peering in: “the space between us / filling with darkness.” It works especially well in contrast to the ending of the second, where the ball-throwing leads to an unspoken connection, where they’re throwing a ball that cannot so much be seen as understood on an instinctive level:

“The return throw
cannot be seen,
yet the ball
falls into my hands, as if
we have established a code
that only brothers know.”

The darkness that separates brothers comes under many names: time, distance, misunderstandings. And yet the bond, forged by fire on the anvil of childhood, connects them no matter what. You go deep, look up into that good starry night, and a ball drops into your hands like some perfectly-boxed and wrapped gift.

American brothers wouldn’t know Boxing Day from Muhammad Ali (no connection), but they surely know the awkwardness of reconnecting and, once it’s done, how it brings you back to where you were so many years ago in simpler, more graceful times. Merry Christmas, readers. To you and your parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and fellow men no matter what country they live in.

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