Monday, December 1, 2008

I Know Why the Wise Men Brought Three Gifts

Three childhood Christmas gifts stand out in my memory.

My Big Susan Walking Doll was the first gift I remember. I was about six and was disappointed because Big Susan didn’t really “walk” like the package proclaimed. You had to hold her hand and gently prod each stiff leg forward. But she was b-i-g, that was for sure, about waist high to a six year old. I loved her.

The next Christmas present I remember was an Osmond Brothers record album entitled “Homemade.” I was around twelve. I remember it so well because Scott, my brother, asked me to go to the basement with him one afternoon before Christmas.

Our basement was eerie. It was unfinished, concrete-cold, dark and musty. I followed him downstairs though, and he led me to a blanket-covered box. He excitedly pulled back the blanket and pulled out the Osmond album. I was appalled! My brother had found the Christmas present stash! I urged him to put everything back so that mom didn’t find out that we had been there. I was happy to get the Osmond album that Christmas, but the enjoyment was somewhat tempered by the guilt I felt for trying to act surprised when I opened it.

I was seventeen when I received the Texas Instrument Scientific Calculator. It was great. It calculated sines, cosines, and other mathematical functions that have long since fled my memory. It was a great way to double-check my homework. It also served to firmly establish me as a nerd.

The fact that these three gifts are the only ones that stand out to me, even though I received many more, does not seem odd to me now. Why? Because, it isn’t about the gifts.

Those of us who are parents worry a little bit at Christmas time. Are we buying our children too much? Will they only see Christmas as “gimme” time? Will we be able to adequately impress upon them the sacredness of the season? Should we set a limit on presents, or not do presents at all? Or should we max out every credit card we own?

Even more so than the three gifts, there are things that I’ll never forget.

I remember being three years old. After dinner, my dad took me shopping for a present for my mom. When we got back home, Santa had come! The lights in the living room were off, except for the Christmas tree lights and there were presents piled high. I don’t remember what I got, but I do remember how wonderful I felt when I walked in the door.

I remember being seven years old and getting to be the Virgin Mary in our school play. I was so honored. My dad was shocked that the Virgin Mary wiggled her loose tooth all during the play.

I remember that in most families I knew, presents were opened on Christmas Eve. “Santa” came on Christmas Eve eve, so that when we woke up on Christmas Eve morning, all our presents were under the tree. Those gifts teased us all day long as we waited for Dad to get home from work. When he finally arrived, we kids would quickly gobble our dinners. Dad however, took great joy in deliberately chewing every mouthful as slowly as he could. I don’t remember what I got, but I remember being so happy to see my dad!

I remember being out of school for two weeks at Christmas time. I would get to stay up late and sit with my mom on the couch in the dark. We would watch a floor lamp with a colored filter rotate slowly, so that its colors were reflected in the silver branches of our very Sixties aluminum Christmas tree. It was beautiful and magical and we sat in sleepy reverence, recalling the birth of our Savior. I don’t remember what I got, but I remember loving Jesus at a young age.

I remember trying to stay awake after opening presents so that we could go to Midnight Mass. Our friends would be there and we had to show off our new dress clothing. Dad rushed us to get there by 11:00 p.m. to get a seat. It was a very holy and spiritual night for us.

Most Catholic churches are very ornate, ours being no exception, but on Christmas it was even more so. There were Christmas trees in every corner. Hundreds of candles were burning. The choir, hidden in the balcony, was singing prelude music.

At midnight the senior priest entered the back of the church, part of an elaborate procession. The altar boys would come in ahead of him, down the long center aisle, one carrying a Bible high above his head, another carrying a crucifix high on a staff, others with hands pressed together as if in prayer. The priest followed the altar boys, waving a metal ball on a chain that had incense burning inside. Other priests followed behind him. All were wearing the floor length robes typical of priests and altar boys. Lay people brought up the rear. They walked single file under a canopy of drawn swords, held aloft by the Knights of Columbus dressed in their flowing capes, plumed helmets, and tall black boots. It was regal. I don’t remember what I got, but I remember knowing in my soul that Christmas was not about the presents. It was about people coming together in the middle of the night and giving honor to the Redeemer.

I remember the first time I was able to actually have my own money to buy presents for others. I had earned money babysitting and walked about a mile and a half to a discount store where I had to figure out how to buy the most gifts with what little money I had. Then I had to walk back home that mile and a half trying to hold my presents so that all the glass items I bought did not smash together. I don’t remember what I received that year, but I do remember buying 2 beer glasses for my sister and her husband! And more importantly I remember how good it felt to be able to show my love for my family.

I remember as a college student going to Midnight Mass with my brother. We were complaining because it was Iowa, for goodness sake, and there was no snow! We whined about how it just did not seem like Christmas. We got out of Mass at around 1:30 a.m., only to hear shrieks and laughter coming from those who had filed out ahead of us. It had snowed about two inches with more snow falling quickly and quietly all around us. People came out of church as surprised as we were and began throwing snow at each other and laughing hysterically. Young boys were running down the sidewalk so they could skid and slide as if riding a skateboard. Women were squealing because they had worn their high heels and snow was caking inside. People just kind of stood around awhile, not wanting to leave the scene and break the magic spell. It felt as if the heavens were celebrating with us, by tossing down white, cold confetti.

How about you? Do you remember all the cool presents you received as a child? Can you name three ? Or do you mostly remember the love you shared with your family? Do you recall the honor and reverence you felt, as people you knew, and even strangers, gathered together to celebrate The Day that the earth was changed forever?

As it gets closer to Christmas, and I start to wonder whether to buy my son this Lego set or that DVD, whether to even do gifts at all, or how to truly impress upon his mind the “reason for the season,” I remember this: It’s not about the gifts. I could buy him 37 expensive gifts or a few dollar-aisle items and it won’t matter. Because when he’s 48 years old, do you know what he’s going to remember?

He’s going to remember picking through his old toys and selecting which he would like to give as presents to the rest of the family.

He’s going to remember that he did extra jobs around the house for several days so that he could earn money. He’ll remember that he took the money he earned and went to Walmart to buy some toys for “the poor kids.” He’ll remember taking those toys and dropping them off at Sub for Santa.

He’s going to remember his elementary school Christmas party and how much fun he had going to look for a present for a classmate. He will remember how lucky he was to be able to go to a school where he can mention the name of Christ with no fear of repercussion. He’ll remember that at his school, Christmas was about Christ, and not about Rudolph, or Santa, or “winter break.”

He’ll remember being in the church Christmas dance performances.

He’s going to remember sitting with his family, reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth.

He’ll remember carefully arranging and re-arranging Nativity figurines on the coffee table.

And he’ll remember staying up late, sitting on the couch in the dark, with his mom, looking at Christmas tree lights.

And if he remembers three gifts, I’ll truly be surprised.

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