Roger Barr’s annual holiday story: ‘Dream Christmas Gifts’

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St. Paul author Roger Barr continues a 25-year Christmas story tradition with “Dream Christmas Gifts.” 

Author Roger Barr (Courtesy of Brad Stauffer)

The series began with “The Last Christmas,” which was published by the Villager newspaper in 1997, Barr says. With the exception of 1998, there had been a new Bartholomew story in the Villager every year until 2020, when the tradition moved to the Pioneer Press. 

On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, Matthew Bartholomew met his friends Handyman and Carter at the Hope Breakfast Bar for their weekly breakfast. Matt had picked the restaurant for its eclectic menu and optimistic name. Usually, the three men consumed the morning news along with their pancakes and omelets, plotting strategies to manage their daily lives amidst the social, political and economic chaos that gripped the country. But a month ago, Handyman had rebelled, declaring: “I’ve got chaos fatigue! I need a respite.” By unanimous consent, they’d banned current events as table talk until further notice.

“Everybody had a good Thanksgiving, I presume?” Carter asked after the server took their orders. “Lucille was making turkey soup when I left the house.”

“Thanksgiving was quiet at our house,” Matt said.  “Our big day, of course, is always Saturday. That’s when the extended Bartholomew family assembles for a potluck, and we light the creche in our front yard for the first time.”  A decades-long tradition, the Bartholomew family creche was composed of 50 life-sized, lifelike figures. A perennial entry on media lists of the best Christmas displays, the creche attracted thousands of visitors to Pinehurst Avenue throughout the holidays.

“Ah, yes! Your creche,” Carter said. “As a—”

“Speaking of your creche,” Handyman interrupted, “Matt, I hope your creche visitors fill those food donation barrels quickly. Thanksgiving always depletes the shelves at Open Cupboard.”

“Like I was saying,” Carter continued, “As a police officer, you see things you can’t unsee. Back when I worked third shift, I’d often stop by your house in the wee hours, just to admire the beauty and erase some of the ugliness I’d just witnessed.”

Around them, the tables were filling up. Matt leaned forward to hear his friends over the chatter. The server returned with their orders. As they ate, their conversation turned toward Christmas.

“We’re switching to an artificial tree this year,” Matt said. “Deidre ordered one online.”

“Food demand always skyrockets through December,” Handyman said. “With all those federal programs winding down, demand is only gonna increase. New clients every day.”

“Well,” Carter said, “I need to come up with a dream gift for Lucille. I’ve told you how this started.  The year we bought our first house, we had no money for Christmas. Lucille told me to pick out the gift that I dreamed of giving her but leave it in the store. She did the same thing. On Christmas Eve we treated ourselves to lunch at White Castle. From there, she took me to a Crysler dealership and presented me with a shiny red Chrysler New Yorker. I took her to a jeweler and gave her diamond earrings. It was so much fun, we’ve done it every year since. We call them our dream gifts. They’re more fun than our real gifts for each other. These days we don’t need anything, so now our dream gifts literally are the things we dream about. Last year I told her that in 2023, Dr. King’s dream would finally come true, and we’d be judged by the content of our character.”

“Amen, Brother,” Handyman murmured.

“I don’t have the first idea what to give her this year,” Carter finished. “Any ideas?”

They kicked around various ideas, but nothing captured Carter’s fancy. The server came with the bill and cleared their plates. Matt reached for the bill. Whoever picked the restaurant also picked up the tab.

“Well,” Handyman said, “Respite’s over. Chaos, here we come.”

In the Bartholomew family, Christmas tree shopping used to mean a family outing to a tree farm, where daughter Allison and son Christopher raced from tree to tree in search of the perfect specimen. Now, the perfect tree came in a box. It took Matt and Deidre nearly an hour to unpack the tree and set it up. To Matt, the perfect shape of the unlit spruce lacked personality.

“It feels strange, almost like a betrayal,” Deidre conceded as they wove their old string of lights through the flawless branches. “But I won’t miss sweeping up needles until Easter.” They hung ornaments collected over 30 years of marriage, saving several special ornaments to hang when Allison and Christopher arrived home.

“What about these?” Deidre held up Carol’s box. Matt’s sister Carol had given a hand-painted ornament to every member of the extended Bartholomew family in 2013 — her last Christmas.  Every year when Matt hung Carol’s ornament, he thought of her and their last conversation. “Promise me you’ll take care of my girls,” Carol had pleaded from her hospice bed. Her ex-husband had long ago disappeared as both a partner and a parent to Elizabeth and Ann. “Of course, I will,” he’d promised. Though 31 and 29 respectively, they still craved a parental figure. He stayed in touch with them through texts and social media, Sunday night suppers, theater outings, and the occasional home repair project. Last June, he had walked Ann—wearing her mother’s wedding dress—down the aisle where Nicolas waited at the altar.

“Let’s each hang ours,” Matt said. “Allison and Chris can hang theirs when they’re home.”

As they were finishing up, Matt’s phone pinged. The text was from his niece Ann. “FaceTime?”

He texted a thumbs-up emoji. Deidre sat beside him to receive the call. Ann’s face appeared on his phone.

“Have you talked to Liz lately?” Ann asked.

“Not since the potluck.”

“I can’t get ahold of her. For two days.”

“Really.” Matt felt his stomach tighten.

“I’ve texted her several times, left two voice mails, even emailed her. Nothing.”

“Did you two have a disagreement of some kind?”

“No.” On the screen, Ann’s eyes narrowed. “I’m probably making too much of this, but she’s been acting strange lately. For her.”

“How so?”

“You know how she is. All sunshine and rainbows, sees the bright side of everything — the opposite of me. Lately, she’s been making these comments about how crazy everything is.  What’s there to look forward to, anyway? What’s the use in putting up with it — things like that. All gloom and doom. I ask how things are going, you know, really going since she broke up with Zack in August and she says ‘Oh, fine,’ then changes the subject. I admit I haven’t seen her as much since the wedding. She keeps me at arm’s length and seems so withdrawn. I was going to tell you this at the potluck, but never got the chance.”

“I’m glad you told me. I’ll check up on her.  So, how’s married life?” They talked for a few minutes.

“All gloom and doom,” Deidre said after the call ended. “That doesn’t sound at all like our Liz.”

Matt keyed in Elizabeth’s cell number. No answer. He ended the call without leaving a message.  “I think I’ll pay her a visit.”

“Good idea. Tell her I said ‘hello’.”

Elizabeth’s apartment was on the second floor of a corner-lot building that once housed a grocery store. Matt hiked up the inside staircase and knocked on Elizabeth’s door. He knocked a second time and then a third before the door opened.

“Uncle Matt.”

“Sorry to drop in unannounced. I called a few minutes ago, but got no answer. I was in the neighborhood, so here I am. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, it’s OK.”

She unfastened the chain and stepped back. “I was just going to bed.”

“I’ll only stay a minute.”

Around the room, an uncharacteristic accumulation of clutter covered the flat surfaces. Elizabeth cleared a place on the couch for him.

“Sorry about the mess.”

“I didn’t get much chance to chat with you at the potluck. How are you?”

“Oh, fine.” Elizabeth cleared a space for herself, piling books and clothes on the floor. She sat down awkwardly, hands in her lap. Matt remained silent. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer your call,” she said finally. “Like I said, I was just going to bed.”

“Your sister’s been calling you.”

“I know. I planned to call her in the morning.”

Matt nodded and let the silence grow.

“I’m fine. Really. I’m just tired, that’s all. Work’s been hard.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Oh, just the usual. How’s Aunt Deidre?”

“Fine. She says ‘hello.’ You said work was hard? Wanna talk about it?”

“Talking won’t change anything.”

“What needs to change?”

“Nothing.” Elizabeth shook her head in resignation. ‘Everything!”  The word erupted from her like shutters thrown open from the inside.

“That’s quite a range!”

“Everything’s wrong!” she cried. “Ever since Mom died. I still miss her every day! There was the pandemic, then George Floyd, then the election and all that fallout. Now all this stuff about our country falling apart. Two wars. All the while, our planet is burning up!” She choked back a sob. “Zack moved out! Nobody cares about anybody but themselves! Nothing works anymore! Everything is chaos!”

Matt reached for her, but she waved him away.

“I know how you feel,” he said after a moment, “But lots of things work. Most things, in fact. We take what works for granted. We only talk about what doesn’t work.”

“All anybody does is talk!” she said tearfully. “Nothing ever happens. Nothing good, anyway. We’re so divided! Look at the family potluck. You’ve hosted that since I was a kid. Never a problem. Last year and again this year, Uncle Tim’s whole family didn’t come because — well you know the reasons.”

“Look, Elizabeth, I know things are rough, but it’s important to keep your perspective. Sometimes, you just need to step away from things, give yourself a little respite.”

“That’s the trouble! Everybody just steps away.”

“All this chaos will get worked out eventually,” Matt promised. “Christmas is coming! Have a little faith. I have faith in the possibilities that lie before us.”

“I used to believe that,” Elizabeth said bitterly. “You say ‘most things work.’ Name one!”

Matt’s mind went momentarily blank. “Let me get back to you on that,” he said lightly.

Elizabeth made a sound between a snort and a laugh. And just as quickly as she had thrown open the shutters to her inner self, she pulled them shut.

They made small talk for a few minutes. “Uncle Matt,” Elizabeth said, “I have to get up early.”  She stood up as a prelude to walking him to the door.

“Then I should go. We’re looking forward to having you for supper Sunday night. Ann and Nick have other plans. Tell you what. Text your aunt what your favorite dish is, and she’ll fix it special for you.”

“I will.”

“You know your aunt and I love you. We’re are always available if you need us. Day or night!”

“I know.” The tone of her voice made Matt wonder if she believed him. Or if it made any difference.

He hesitated at the door. “You sure you’re OK?”

“Don’t worry,” Elzabeth said listlessly. “I’m not going to do anything, you know, drastic.”

But worry he did. Was Elizabeth, usually sunshine and rainbows, experiencing a temporary funk, in need of a respite from the chaos, or was this a sign of something serious? How could he tell the difference? Should he suggest she get professional help? Although Elizabeth had assured him she wouldn’t do anything drastic, he’d read the statistics in the newspaper. The unthinkable lingered in the back of his mind.

When Elizabeth didn’t text her favorite dish to her aunt, at Matt’s suggestion, Deidre texted her.   She showed him their niece’s reply. “Don’t go to any trouble just for me.”

“That doesn’t help much,” Matt said.

“I’m not worried about what to cook,” Deidre replied. “I am puzzled by her answer.  Did she truly not want me to go to any trouble, or was it too hard for her to make a decision?”

“She does seem overwhelmed,” Matt agreed. “She did mention her breakup with Zack the other night, but she’s always made it clear that her private life is off limits.”

“Well let’s see how she is on Sunday night,” Deidre said.

On Sunday night, Elizabeth arrived a half hour late, offering no explanation or apology.  Deidre shooed them out of the kitchen. “You two go visit. Dinner will be ready shortly.”

Matt led the way into the living room. Liz settled into a leather armchair. Matt took a seat on the sofa.

“How’s work going?”

“Oh, fine.” Elizabeth pulled out her phone, looked at Matt, and returned it to her pocket.

Matt suddenly felt awkward. What could he say to engage her and not make her feel patronized?

“You know, I never got back to you about things that work. I was thinking about that this morning. I went into the garage and started my car — a hybrid that’s good for the environment. I backed out, passing the recycling and garbage bins. Every week, trucks come by, pick up and dispose of our refuse — ecologically. I drove down the street and the stoplight turned red. I waited while other cars drove through the intersection. The light changed, they stopped and I drove on. We just take all this for granted—it’s part of our routine. Right now, I’ll admit there’s chaos—it’s like the stoplights have quit working. Temporarily.”

“It’s more like the stoplights work fine,” Liz countered, “and people just stopped obeying them.”

For everything he could point to that worked, she could point to something that didn’t. Matt let the matter drop.

“People only care about themselves,” Liz continued, “Zack cared more about his career than he did about me.”

Please, Matt thought, keep talking. Open your shutters and let it out. But Elizabeth lapsed into silence.

“So, how do you like our ‘perfect’ Christmas tree?” Matt asked.  “It’s artificial.”

“It’s pretty.”

“How about some Christmas music? Any requests?” Matt headed over to the stereo cabinet.  When Elizabeth didn’t answer, he selected a CD of popular Christmas tunes. Orchestral notes floated in the air. He turned around to see Elizabeth standing in front of the Christmas tree. She reached out and touched one of her mother’s ornaments.

“I think of your mother every time I see her ornaments,” Matt said.

“Me too.”

The orchestra fell to a hush and Bing Crosby’s longing baritone filled the room. “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” Elizabeth made a face.

“Too old-fashioned?”

“That was Mom’s favorite Christmas song.”

“I could play something else.”

“No, it’s OK.” They listened to the verses in silence.

“I always looked forward to Christmas,” Elizabeth said as the song ended. “Mom went all out. I loved how we’d hang up our stockings, even after we were grown, and it was just the three of us.”

“When we were kids, we hung stockings,” Matt said. “All eight of us.”  He pointed at the fireplace.  “The hooks are still there, under the mantel.”

“Ann told me yesterday that her and Nick are spending Christmas with his folks in Milwaukee.”

As if on cue, Elivs Presley’s “Blue Christmas” came over the speakers.

“Excuse me a minute while I check on dinner.” In the kitchen Matt engaged in a hurried, whispered conversation with Deidre. Returning to the living room, he announced that dinner was ready.

Deidre had prepared a pork roast with a baked potato and broccoli. They passed the dishes around the table.  Matt glanced at Deidre who gave him an affirming nod.

“Elizabeth, since Ann and Nick will be in Milwaukee, why don’t you spend Christmas with us?  You could come Christmas Eve and stay overnight. We’ve got plenty of room.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble.”

“Nonsense,” Deidre said. “We’d love to have you.”

“Well, OK then. Thanks.”

As they ate, Matt told them about the Carters and the history of their dream gifts for each other.  “Last year, Carter’s dream gift to his wife was that this year, Martin Luther King’s dream would finally come true. The last time I saw him, he still hadn’t decided on a dream gift for this year.”

Matt looked around the table. “If you could receive a dream gift, what would it be? The year’s almost over and Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled, so me wishing for world peace is probably too much to ask for.”

“Carter’s dream gift sets a high standard,” Deidre agreed. “I’ll be modest. My dream gift is a merry Christmas that gives all of us a much-needed break from everything.”

“Elizabeth, what about you?” Matt asked.

Elizabeth toyed with the food on her plate. “Proof that somebody actually cares about someone besides themselves.” She looked up. “Besides the two of you,” she added as though it were an afterthought.

Matt silently altered his dream gift. Instead of world peace, he wished he could prove to Elizabeth that people still cared about each other. This was something he couldn’t tell her and have her believe it. She needed to see and feel for herself.

Every night at bedtime, Matt went outside and tucked in the creche for the night. In the garage, he disarmed the security system so he could move among the figures. Starting in the stable, he checked the Holy Family and the animals, then inspected the shepherds and their flock, followed by the wise men and their camels, and, finally, the multitude of angels.  He walked down to the boulevard sidewalk to admire the creche as a visitor would. In the theatrical lighting, the figures looked ordered and peaceful, a symbol of hope. No wonder Carter used to stop here. His thoughts drifted back 2,000 years. How chaotic it was when Caesar Agustus decreed that all the world should be enrolled and the roads were jammed with travelers, Mary and Joseph among them, journeying to Bethlehem. Chaos had ensued when King Herod, tricked by the wise men, ordered the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2, forcing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Chaos, it seemed, was always at hand.

He checked the food donation barrels and was glad to see they were nearly full.  Tomorrow he’d make a delivery to Open Cupboard.  An idea suddenly occurred to him.  Elizabeth’s dream gift was right here under his nose, part of his holiday routine.  He’d taken it for granted. All he had to do was figure out how to set it up.

The opportunity presented itself two weeks later when Elizabeth texted him. “This Saturday could we go to Best Buy to get a new Wi-Fi router?” “Sure,” he texted back.  “Pick you up Saturday morning, ten o’clock.”

On Saturday morning, Matt transferred the food from the donation barrels into boxes, which he loaded into his SUV.  Elizabeth was waiting for him in front of her apartment.

“On the way, we have to run an errand,” Matt said. “Won’t take long.”

A few minutes later, they turned into an alley and stopped beside a double garage. “Here’s where I drop off food donations. Help me carry these boxes in.”

They carried the boxes inside. Handyman had decorated for Christmas. On one wall, red letters spelling out MERRY CHRISTMAS hung in an arc in front of posters reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” In one corner stood a Christmas tree, generously decorated with candy canes.

“Looks like Handyman stepped out,” Matt said. “Let’s put this stuff on the shelves. Won’t take long.”

While they were stocking the canned goods, the service door opened and a Target shopping cart loaded with black plastic bags appeared, pushed by a bearded man bundled in multiple layers of clothing. The man ignored them and guided his cart through the narrow aisles, stopping here and there to select items and stuff them into a bag. He emerged from the last aisle and headed toward the door. Elizabeth watched him leave and gave Matt a questioning look.

“Mr. Target,” Matt explained. “We don’t know his name. We call him ‘Mr. Target’ because of the cart. He never speaks, never lets go of his cart. He takes food that’s ready to eat.”

“Where does he stay?”

“Don’t know. We only know what our clients tell us about themselves. Way he’s dressed, we assume he sleeps outside nights. Handyman’s philosophy is everyone has a right to eat, no questions asked.”

As they were emptying the last of their boxes, Handyman stepped through the service door. He greeted Matt with a fist bump.

“Handyman,” Matt said, “I don’t think you’ve met my niece, Elizabeth Prescott.


“Handyman runs Open Cupboard,” Matt explained.

“Your uncle is being polite,” Handyman replied. “Open Cupboard runs itself. True, I started it just to cut through the red tape between food and hungry people. We got no applications here, no requirements or limits. And no waiting! The door doesn’t have a lock. People come in all hours of the day and help themselves. Our signs—” he pointed at a sign on the end of an aisle “—say ‘take all you need, leave some for others.’ It’s worked for 22 years.”

Matt stacked their empty boxes one inside the other in preparation to leave. The service door opened again and a Black woman in her early 30s stepped inside, accompanied by a girl about 5 years old.

“Well look who’s here!” Handyman exclaimed. “And Miss Keesha, too, looking very grown up. How you doing today, Symone? How’s your mister?”

“Still in a cast. Doctor says three months before he goes back to work, but he says he’s going in January.  We need the money.” She turned to Matt and Elizabeth. “He fell at work — two stories.”

“Well,” Handyman said, “We’re here long as you need us. Help yourself.”

“How many times can we thank you?”

“Once is enough.”

Keesha tugged at her mother’s sleeve. Symone leaned down and the girl whispered in her ear.

“She wants to know if she can have a candy cane.” Symone pointed at the Christmas tree.

“Help yourself, honey,” Handyman said. “That’s why they’re there.”

Keesha tugged at her mother’s sleeve again and Symone leaned down. “Can she take one for her daddy?”

“Yes, if you tell him Handyman says ‘hey.’”

Symone took a cart and pushed it down the aisle with the coolers. A moment later, a glass door slid open.

Handyman nodded in Symone’s direction, “That’s our story.”

“Where does your food come from?” Elizabeth asked.

“We rely on donations from good people like your uncle. Former clients remember us and become donors. Grocery stores donate our perishables. We accept cash donations.”

Matt picked up their boxes.  “We’re done,” he said. “I’m volunteering Monday afternoon. See you then.”

“Nice meeting you, Miss Elizabeth,” Handyman said. “Take a piece of Open Cupboard with you.”  He pointed to the Christmas tree.

Elizabeth helped herself to a candy cane.

In the car, Matt watched his niece out of the corner of his eye as he drove. She traced the curve of her candy cane with her finger.

“You brought me here on purpose, didn’t you?”

“What if I did?”

“I’ve always known you collected food donations from creche visitors, but I never thought about where the food went, who the people were. That little girl.  And Mr. Target. No judgments.”

“I don’t know anyone who cares more about other people than Handyman,” Matt said. “Doesn’t matter who they are.”

“Where’d the name ‘Handyman’ come from?”

“He and my friend Carter grew up together. When they were, in Carter’s words, ‘running the streets’ he was a ‘handy man’ to have around. The name stuck. Most people don’t even know his real name, just his reputation.”

The remainder of their drive to Best Buy was silent. Matt found a parking spot. “Ready?”

Elizabeth still held the candy cane in her lap. “I don’t know whether to eat this or save it as a memento.”  She slipped it into her coat pocket.

As Christmas neared, Matt sensed that Elizabeth’s shutters hadn’t opened, exactly, but she seemed a bit more like herself. Nevertheless, he and Deidre would remain vigilant and if need be, suggest she seek professional help to work her way through the chaos she felt. In the meantime, they took steps to make her Christmas joyful, planning a special surprise for her.

Suddenly it was Christmas Eve. Allison and Christopher and their significant others had arrived. They spent the afternoon watching Christmas movies. They attended Christmas Eve services.  Over dinner, Matt told the story of the Carters’ dream Christmas gifts for each other. “Everyone, sleep on it tonight,” he said, “and tomorrow over Christmas breakfast let’s all identify a dream gift for next year.” He wondered if Carter ever found his dream gift for Lucille.

In the Bartholomew household it was tradition to hang their stockings at bedtime. Deidre brought out the stocking box. “Elizabeth,” she said, “I had your sister send me some Christmas pictures of when you were kids. One of them showed your stockings hanging on the banister. I made a new stocking for you.”

Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears.  “It looks just like my old stocking.”

“When the eight of us were kids,” Matt said, “We hung our stockings according to age. I was oldest, so mine was first. Your mother, second-oldest, hung hers next to mine. Why don’t you hang your stocking on your mother’s hook?”

One by one, they each hung their stockings. As they were saying goodnight, Matt’s phone pinged.  He read the text and smiled. “Listen,” he called to the others. “This is from Carter. It says: ‘My dream gift to Lucille: In 2024, what the angels told the shepherds in the fields 2000 years ago will come true: peace on earth and good will to all humankind.’”

A second text appeared.  “Better late than never, huh?”

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