HOLIDAYS : Gifts Wrapped in Love : Memories of Christmases past recall an excess of booty. But it's the family sentiments that linger.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I was child, my brother and I raked in loot so major that we were the envy of all our friends.

So packed was the area under the tree that it was nearly impossible for Kitty to maneuver his way around the boxes to drink out of the Christmas tree stand. Toy French vanities, white velvet robes with ermine collars, life-size mechanical merry-go-rounds complete with ornate horses, a "fire station" playhouse with an emergency sliding pole: This was the stuff of which our childhood was made.

Old photographs document the lavish scenes. One picture, which a friend of mine dubs the "heiress" shot, still serves as a reminder of my parents' "no-holds-barred" approach to the holidays. But though the material take sounds excessive, the intrinsic value of what was given came not only from the wallet but from the heart.

One rule assured appreciation--and grounded the Christmas morning chaos to some degree: Gifts had to be opened one at a time and admired by all. It was not until I was much older that I grew to revere this family tradition. Comments of delight--feigned or otherwise--were often followed by a catalogue of reasons for why the gift was so appropriate. In short, it was a celebration not only of the recipient but of the giver as well.

It wasn't until four strangers came over for Christmas dinner one year that I fully comprehended my parents' unabashed generosity, which extended beyond the pile of presents. We shared turkey and trimmings with a couple and their two children whom my brother and I had never met. My mother, a real estate agent, barely knew them either but had recently sold their home because the man had lost his job. The children told my brother and me that they didn't have any presents that year because their daddy wasn't working. My brother and I, though enamored with our new toys, each gave the little boy and girl a few to add to the gifts my parents had put under the tree for them.

At the LaFavre household, levity was never in short supply either. Now as well as then, a few silly gifts are given to celebrate some family member's quirks. My brother, for instance, during his teen-age years used to consume an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese as a daily after-school snack. Only half in jest, my mother bought him a couple of giant cup-style "troughs" with handles; she dubbed them the "hungry man" set.

Odd gifts perhaps, but terribly entertaining.

Probably the most memorable gifts my brother and I received as children carry with them a value fully known only to us as adults.

My father once spent weeks on a secret garage project for my brother. The covert operation involved the making of a battlefield fortress for some green plastic army men. Dad made huge mountains out of papier mache. He drew topographical details with tiny toothpick points. He made little bushes out of Spanish moss specially plucked from the trees of Louisiana during a family vacation.

In the same spirit, my mother once spent two months working in secret on a quilt to give me for Christmas. She cut out small squares of fabric and hand-stitched them together in the middle of the night, after putting in full days selling real estate. I readily admit that when I received the quilt at age 14, it was impossible for me to comprehend the sacrifice she had made.

Nevertheless, fine as it might have been, I no longer have the luxe velvet robe with the ermine collar. But I still treasure the quilt, and the memory of the real gift my mother gave me when she made it.

Eventually my brother and I got into the handmade groove, too. When my father opened his own business, money was tight and Mom declared that every gift had to be made to curb expenses. Rocks found on hikes were painted, stands were made and the creations were wrapped up and put under the tree. It still gives me a lift to return home and see, on my father's dresser, those little painted rocks I gave him when I was 10.

As a high schooler, I passed the tradition on to my girlfriends. We made a pact to craft presents for each other, and arranged a little Christmas dinner. I still have the stocking one pal made for me with my name painted on it. As my gifts, I made papier mache sculptures of Mick Jagger's lips and other cultural icons.

Probably my most challenging Christmas creation was the paint-by-numbers of "The Last Supper" I did a couple of years ago for my grandmother, who was 88. I chose it because when I asked her what she wanted she said, "At my age, all I need is Jesus." It was a good thing I waited until her eyesight started failing because, frankly, I'm no Da Vinci.

Even so, when Nana opened it, her eyes welled up. She said she couldn't believe I would go to so much trouble and added that it was quite good (a comment only a loving, nearly blind relative could have made).

Nowadays, gifts to my parents are more practical than they used to be: pajama bottoms for my Dad (he hates the tops) and anything French for my mother. Last year, one of her favorite gifts from me was a tiny white French dish towel--embroidered with the words, "Le Cordon Bleu"--that I snapped up from a San Francisco cooking boutique. Though this simple white cotton towel might be stashed away by some, she absolutely loved it, continually uses it and takes pains to ensure its pristine condition.

Which further reinforces the lesson she taught me as a child, that the humblest gifts are often the most treasured.

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