How I Learned the Holiday Spirit
Peter Panda

One of my best friends in the world when I was a kid was a neighborhood boy named David. He didn’t like hanging out with the troublemakers in his apartment complex, so he would often walk to my house to play Matchbox cars and wiffle ball.

It was the winter of 1984. I was about to turn 13.

The one possession David had over me was a Matchbox Car City, which he would often bring with him. It was a three-level, portable, fold-out playset that allowed you to move your Matchbox cars from the car wash to the police station to the elevator-car garage and back to the grocery store. For two 12-year-old kids, it was the basis of hours of imagination and fun.

David’s family didn’t have much. The Matchbox Car City was probably even a hand-me-down. It was beaten up, with faded stickers. But I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I certainly asked for the new version for Christmas, thinking we could put them together and have rival cities with drag races for bragging rights.

A few days before Christmas, my mother asked what we should get David as a present. I didn’t think much about it and just suggested some new Matchbox cars. Mom obliged and picked up a three-pack of hot rods or something.

On the day before Christmas Eve, David came over with a huge present cradled in his arms. I opened the door and said, “What’s that?!”

“Your present! Merry Christmas!” David beamed with a smile as white as the snow behind him.

I tore into it almost immediately. Being a thoughtless kid, I jumped for joy!

David had given me his Matchbox Car City.

I’m sure I just laughed and thanked him at the time, but looking back on it now, it crushes my heart. While I wasn’t rich by any stretch, my family had more than David’s. His only real possession that no one else in the neighborhood owned was that item. And he gave it to me because I enjoyed it so much.

Regardless of what happened later that next year, I would have learned a valuable lesson about the holidays.

In the spring of that year, though, David and the troublemakers in his complex snuck into a gymnasium and pulled out a trampoline to jump on. They didn’t know you had to secure the structure before it was safe to use.

David died when it collapsed. He was my friend. But more importantly, he was my teacher. He taught me what the holidays — whatever one you celebrate — are meant to be about.

Not a December goes by that I don’t think about David. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I kept his gift and played with it for months, if not years, even after he died. As poetic as it might be to say I kept it as a memory or appreciated it far more than an adolescent ever does, that’s not true. I didn’t appreciate the gesture or recoil in horror at the selfishness of my treatment of it or him in that moment for years.

But now I do. And I often tell people about David and the Matchbox Car City, so they remember the lesson he taught me that day that I didn’t learn for almost a decade later: Giving with your heart can truly touch another person.

Whether a hug or smile, gift or gesture, may the giving you do this week have deeper meaning. It sure would mean a lot to me. And to David.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Peter Panda

Pioneering social media panda bear Tagawa “Peter” Panda was born on a Chinese game reserve in 1969. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 speaking no English, with only the fur on his back and $97 stored in a Jansport fanny-pack wrapped around his waist.

In 2003 while searching for food on the campus of Washington University, he discovered a computer lab where he would ultimately teach himself web development, graphic design, and immerse himself into the growing digital media evolution that was erupting at the time.

With his trademark surly demeanor developed during beatings on his boat ride from China to the U.S., as well as having a penchant for eating vast quantities of bamboo, and enjoying Scotch and cigars, Peter is broadly recognized for coining the phrase “social media” in 2004. He joined Elasticity in late 2009 as the agency’s director of social media strategy and wildlife relations. Friend him on Facebook here.

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