Christmas traditions--most people grow up with them. For Beve, Christmas Eve meant ludefisk and leftsa, straight out of his mom's Norwegian heritage. The first year I celebrated with Beve's family also marked the first and last time I ever tried ludefisk. Once I discovered it actually means fish soaked and cooked in lye, I could hardly swallow one bite, though the giants I'd married into licked their chops at the first smell and could down an obscene quantity of the stuff. Other than that, they always had a birthday cake for Jesus on Christmas Eve, and a yearly discussion about when to open gifts--Beve's mom grew up opening them on Christmas Eve, Beve's dad the next morning so at least one of their traditions was somewhat fluid.
On the other hand, there was nothing fluid about my family's traditions. They were so set in stone that even now, when Mom can't remember our names, she can rattle off the steps of our Christmas Eve/Christmas morning rituals. For example, we always had soup on Christmas Eve (also the birthday of my grandmother who lived with us), because Mom could make it ahead of time, since she had to cook a big dinner the next day. After dinner, we gathered in the living room for the evening's festivities. We all had to share a talent. I remember playing my clarinet (probably very badly), and sometimes doing skits. But once my older brother, the Dump and I got into high school, we always performed "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" complete with hand motions. I could do it to this day! After singing, we played "Santa Claus", one by one from youngest to oldest, while the family closed their eyes, we carried our gifts into the living room and, jingling bells, placed our presents under the tree. When the presents, usually a VERY impressive pile, were under the tree and spreading out across the living room, Dad hung our stockings on nails beneath the mantle. Then Mom read "The Night Before Christmas," and Dad read the story in Luke. Santa Claus and Jesus together, though I have to admit when I was a small child, they were equally fictional.
Now we weren't a family who believed in Santa Claus. I suppose the whole 'playing Santa'' thing gives that away, huh? But the story of Jesus and His parents seemed as much a myth as good St Nick. "Christmas isn't really about Santa but about "Away in a Manger and the Little Lord Jesus." Oh really? It was a story that happened a long time ago, even before the 'olden days' when my parents were children (I really did think in those terms) From my perspective anything that happened before I was born didn't actually count.
No, what was most important about Christmas as I was growing up was presents, of course. The more, the better. We were true-blue Americans, after all. My mom actually kept a list of what she'd bought, intentionally making sure she had an equal number for each person. Cutting back on gift-buying for Mom meant she only bought us 12 presents each. And there were more than a couple years when she'd send Dad down to Dissmore's IGA to find something on Christmas Eve because someone was short a gift. And, if I remember correctly, it was about quantity rather than quality. That's just the way she thought. And she HATED returning things. So if something didn't fit one of us, it'd just be passed to someone else. I remember once that my 'big' gift was a new winter snow jacket. But it was too big for me (a shockingly skinny little kid!) so my mother whipped it off me and told the Dump to try it on. It fit my taller, larger younger sister perfectly, so I was 'given' her year-old winter coat, while she got my new one. And I still remember it 40 years later. A couple of years after that, I got another coat for Christmas, and that time, afraid it'd be taken away, I scrunched my shoulders and tried to look larger than I actually was. The ploy worked, but that dang coat was so large I swam in it, and never really enjoyed having to wear it!
There's something about a gift that is given thoughtfully--as if the giver actually knew us inside out--that is incredibly touching. A gift sometimes not even asked for, but so much desired, that when we open it, it brings tears to our eyes. A handpicked, handmade, one-of-a-kind, just-for-us gift. I've received a few of these in my life. My kids and Beve once bought me a day at a spa. They knew my poor, aching body could do with some pampering. It was luxurious, that day. Another time, the Beve gave me a vacuum cleaner. Now this might not seem like a very romantic gift, but I was soooo happy. He'd heard me complain a time (or thousand) about the old canister that belched dust every time I used it. In college, I received an electric typewriter, and that was wonderful, and certainly made me the envy of all my hall mates. These days when we have more computers than people in this house, that typewriter would seem like an artifact from an ancient civilization, but that little Smith and Corona was cutting edge the year I got it. I wrote all my college essays on onionskin paper. Can you imagine that?
The best gift I ever bought was for my baby brother (though technically it was from my parents!)--an LA Rams football helmet. My best buddy and I drove all over Spokane looking for one, (for some reason it was a very popular gift that year) the only thing baby brother really wanted that year. I remember the hunt that day in Spokane, the extra effort it took to find this so longed for gift for a 4 year old little boy. And I remember D's desire also creating in him a fatalistic fear that he wouldn't receive what he most wanted. "I know I won't get it," he continually told us that holiday season, and my cruel, teasing parents played up his uncertainty. When he opened it, I felt like crying, he was so thrilled, so surprised.
Isn't it like us, deep down? Don't we often think that what we really, truly want most in life will somehow be withheld from us? Aren't we always longing for the one thing that will make the difference? But in truth, we were already given that One thing, that One gift. Weren't we? The manger to the cross to the grave to the sky to our life--this is the arch of that most needed, most longed-for gift. And blessed are we, indeed, if we know it. This singular event so long before any of us breathed is the best gift the world has ever known. Isn't it amazing to think it was all taking place in an obscure location in the outback of the known world? God came down, and other than a few shepherds, those very wise travelers from the east, and a few farm animals, nobody even knew the gift that had been given to the world, the gift that would change your life, would satisfy all your longings, and would transform the world forever.
In the morning as you open your gifts, as you watch others open the one you picked out so carefully for them, take a deep breath of the sweet fragrance of praise and thank Him for the life He gave you in the beginning, and the gift of that long ago morning in Bethlehem.