How do we determine value? The purchase and exchange of Christmas gifts causes us to evaluate our relationships and to somehow connect them with the things we give and receive. But, what if that kind of thinking, which I do whether I want to or not when determining my Christmas budget, warps the original purpose of the exchange? How did we get from the gifts of the Magi and the sheep of the Little Drummer Boy to “regifting?” Rather than answer that disturbing societal question, I have been ruminating on the thoughtfulness of the wonderful gifts I have been given by those who have loved me.
Choosing and presenting a gift can be an expression of love. Sometimes the gift demonstrates an understanding of the person receiving it, so it says, “I know you, and I see you.” Sometimes the gift has been carefully crafted by hand, so it says, “I value you enough to spend time and creative energy making this for you.” Sometimes the gift has been handed down to you, so it says, “This will keep us connected, even after I am gone” or “I treasure you enough to share with you something I have treasured.” All these kinds of gifts show an earnest desire to please their receiver, which touches the heart, and isn’t that the real point of Christmas?
So, I don’t mean to add pressure to the task of Christmas shopping, which can already be fraught with tension, but to ask us to think about our own heartfelt treasures. Maybe such thoughts can help us turn our forced shopping sprees into meaningful experiences once more.
For my seventh birthday, my grandfather bought me a jewelry box shaped like a forest cottage. A painted on, aqua blue stream wends its way in front to a water wheel, which you spin to wind up the music box inside. Little pebbles are glued to the top to make the roof look rustic. Flower boxes and a little log bridge to the front door make it seem the most charming place on earth. The song of”The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music tinkles out of it when you lift the lid. The tag from Sears on the bottom says $6.99. It sits on my dresser still. You see, my grandfather came all the way from New York City to where we lived in small-town North Carolina for my seventh birthday, and he brought his wife and my 3 cousins with him to help me celebrate! He and Gladys also gave me a real gold cross with a diamond in the middle, but I wasn’t allowed to wear that until I got older and more responsible. The jewelry box I could play with right away, and it has been in use, on my dresser, ever since. God bless you, Grandfather and Gladys, for making a skinny, little girl with knobby, bruised knees feel so special on that day.
When I was fifteen, my mother presented me with a gold heart that she had been given by her mother when she was sixteen. On it she had engraved her initials on one side and mine on the other in a loose, loopy script. She put it on me that day, and I wore it daily well into my thirties. I literally kept her heart close to my heart as I left home for college, then moved out of state as a young adult. In a Christmas lullaby called “Mille Cherubini”, the Virgin Mary cuddles the baby Jesus and says, “Rest your heart over my heart, and sleep.” Pressing hearts together as we hold each other expresses our intimacy and love for one another. Hugging may never seem the same after you have thought of it this way!
When I moved to New York City, I took a job as an adjunct English Professor at City College. Although I had worked as a high school English teacher for many years, I had never taught college-aged students before. My students needed extra instruction in writing cogent, grammatically correct compositions, and they had to pass the ACT writing exam with a particular score at the end of my course in order to move on to regular classes at the college. Understandably, many felt anxious and sometimes got discouraged over the volume and complexity of the material they had to conquer in order to pass, but I constantly told them they could do it if they worked hard enough, that writing compositions well is a skill not a talent. That first semester ended in December, and I got a call from the director of the program telling me how pleased he was that all but one of my students had passed their exams. I felt proud and excited. Then, the departmental secretary called me and told me to come to the office and pick up my gifts. “What gifts?” I asked. “The gifts from your students. You have lots of them waiting for you. You have to come and get them!” she replied. I laughed at her in disbelief because where I had come from, students did not normally give gifts to their instructors. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the small, heartfelt gifts purchased on already stretched, college-student budgets. One young woman gave me a bookmark that reads, “Never, never, never quit.” It always sits out on my desk, wherever I work.
My husband proposed the day after Christmas. He got down on one knee in my dining room with a little blue box in his hand. He asked me to be his wife. Previously, he had gone to my parents’ apartment to ask permission, and while there, he had asked my mother to tie the bow on that box. Inside the box he had selected an unusually beautiful, delicate, sparkling, diamond flower as my ring. You see, I garden. I had planted a rose garden in my backyard that spring. Upon hearing about the newly planted rose bushes, Hubby had especially ordered and had delivered gloves which had my initials on the protective canvas cuff, designed for tending roses. I had kept bouquets of my garden roses all over the house that summer and into the fall. We found each other and our love blossomed although we are middle aged, a rose in winter.
The Christmas Hymn, “Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,” expresses the miracle of such unexpected life and loveliness given to us by God, in the form of his precious child, Jesus.
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem has sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming as seers of old have sung.
It came a blossom bright,
amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.
Isaiah was foretold it, the rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to us a savior, when half spent was the night.
O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
true man yet very God,
from sin and death now save us, and share our every load.
I love that song.
Also, I’m going to continue to try to be present instead of focusing on presents. Our daughter likes to light a fire and hang out, but she needs for us all to be in front of it together. She will call my husband and I back if we wander away to do a chore or make a business call because we are the most precious gift we can give to each other, our love and our undivided attention. This devotion and openness of heart to His love for us is what God values most as well. The poet, Christina Rossetti, expressed these same sentiments in “In the Bleak Midwinter” in 1872, which Gustav Holst later set to music as a Christmas carol.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign:
in the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord incarnate-God incarnate, Jesus Christ.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part;
Yet what can I give him, give my heart.
Speaking of wise men, my uncle and aunt included a touching, handwritten note inside their Christmas card to us this year. So, I’ll leave you with their thoughts:
During this season of love and hope –
hold tight to one another-
because it is a season of high and low emotions;
of laughter and tears.
Let’s pray that the love and peace
drowns out the fears and anxieties.
Wishing you every blessing,