I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
The Christmas Gifts
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
When Maya and Bailey receive Christmas presents from their parents one year, they burst into tears. Sounds like a couple of ungrateful brats, right? Who cries over presents? But here's the thing: these presents mean a lot more to Bailey and Maya than any old Princess Unicorn.
The presents reveal to Maya and Bailey that their parents are alive. Not only that, but they live in a land of milk and honey called California—and they don't want their kids (8.13).
So presents—which are usually a symbol of giving—end up symbolizing rejection. Not cool.
A Gift is Worth a Thousand Words
What are these presents exactly? Daddy Bailey's present is a picture of himself—big surprise. We know even before we meet him how vain he is going to be. Vivian's presents are a bit odder: a teacup set and a doll.
Why would you give a teacup set to a poor girl in the South? Good question, us. Later in the novel, when Maya writes about debutantes, she discusses the futility of poor black girls trying to attain Victorian ideals despite their situations (16.1). This teacup set is a miniature example of this. Mother Dear is completely out of touch with her daughter's situation, and she will continue to be even once they live together.
And how about that doll? Did we mention that it's white with rosy cheeks and blond hair? Hmmm. We know from the very beginning of the book that Maya fantasizes about being that pretty little white girl (Prologue.9). It's pretty clear that the doll represents an unattainable standard of beauty for Maya—though maybe not for her movie-star mom. Little Maya sees herself as too black and too ugly to ever be pretty.
One last thing. Maya and Bailey rip the doll apart, but keep the tea set. What gives?