Christmas epitomized for me what was as wonderful a childhood as a kid could ask.
We were an open-all-the-gifts-on-Christmas-morning family. I had plenty of friends who bragged how they got theirs on Christmas Eve. Coal deservers, the whole lot of them.
Comparing notes with my buddies, I learned that Santa tailored to each home how he delivered presents. At our house, his gifts were unwrapped, while the wrapped ones were those from mere mortals. Our parents must have put in this request for it worked to their advantage. We kids, as kids of every generation, were up before dawn had a chance to crack.
We would gather at the entrance to the living room, poised to pounce. One of us would turn on the light and we were off. There were Santa’s gifts, displayed in front of the tree, laid out so we could recognize which ones belonged to each of us. They never had our names on them. They didn’t need to. We knew what we requested, and Santa never failed. Some were toys and games and gadgets for us alone, and some were for the family.
The low roar of the living room was occurring with our folks’ bedroom on the other side of the wall. It wasn’t long before they were up and we were tossing the wrapped gifts to the owner of each. As we opened each package of socks and underwear and hats and pajamas that we really were glad to have, we pretended to be either unhappy or embarrassed, never giving Mom the satisfaction of showing our pleasure at such things.
We always had a real tree. One year, it just would not remain standing. We came home one evening to find it on the floor. Replacing it in an upright position, before long we once again found it on the floor. Dad got smart. The ubiquitous duct tape was produced. He wrapped a rope around the tree and stuck it to the wall. Nothing says Christmas like a wad of gray tape plastered against your wall.
The year that I was perhaps ten, making Dave nine and Mark five, we three decided that Mom deserved a special treat for Christmas vacation. We all came down with chicken pox the first day of Christmas break. We were not healthy again until it was time to go back to school. You’re welcome, Mom.
I never saw my dad drunk in my entire life, but one Christmas Eve he came home from the office Christmas party pretty talkative. Mom: “John Eilers, you’re drunk!” Dad: “No, I’m not. We just had a little nip.” And so it went. It really was quite humorous. It was always fun to watch Mom irked, vexed, and tormented. She played the part to Academy Award standards.
Some years, I got a gift that was so perfect that I used it until I wore it out. Do you recall Skittle Bowl? It must have come out around 1970, though an Internet search produced no info on its history. Santa endowed me with one when I was in my early teens. It was my first addiction. Because the game was loud—a wooden ball was on a vertical rod, you pushed the ball to swing back and knock down the wooden pins—and because it took up a fair amount of room, I had to play it in my folks’ bedroom. With the door closed. That was fine with me. I spent hours in there, trying to perfect the swinging of that ball to get strikes. I had about as much success as I would have with regular bowling.
As we got older and had jobs, we got Mom and Dad some pretty decent gifts. They certainly earned every last buck we sacrificed for them. I can still hear Mom the year she opened one of our gifts only to see the box of an item she didn’t need. Instead of keeping quiet until she opened the box, she said, “But I have one of these,” and so on and so forth, and proceeded to make a fool of herself as she was continually encouraged, “Mom. Mom! MOM! It’s not what the box is!” When she opened it, boy, was she embarrassed. It was something she wanted. Crazy Mom.
We siblings even gave decent gifts to each other. By the time we were teenagers, sister Sue got creative. She reminded me how she would take one of my despised gifts and make it really hard to open—three rolls of tape, minimum—only for me to find a poem inside. The poem put me on a hunt about the house to discover clue after clue until I finally arrived at the gift. It’s a good thing Sue became a great Christmas goodie maker—her fudge is to die for—because, well, because I said so.
It was only after I became a minister that I finally understood what Christmas giving was all about. It happened like this:
When we were kids, the closer it got to Christmas, the more we got under Mom’s skin. After school let out for Christmas break and we were home all day long, we practically drove her berserk. “If you kids don’t behave, everything’s going back to the store!” We knew it was an idle threat. We kept it up. Mom did too. “I’d leave you if I wouldn’t be arrested for desertion!” Classic Mom.
No matter our behavior, Dad’s paycheck was stretched as thin as Mom’s temper. We were showered with toys and games and clothes and you-name-its as if we were the Rockefellers.
What I learned is this: That’s the way love is. Love gives from love, not from the behavior of the recipient. My parents lavishing us with gifts was a human picture of divine love, of God the Father’s giving His only Son into our flesh to be our Savior. We humans did not deserve the gift of Jesus. The Father could have taken Him back to the store. But, no, that’s not what love does. Love gives.
And gives. And gives.
From perfect love, the Lord gives His all, even to death on a cross. In His wisdom, He gave us parents to help us see what He was doing for us the day Mary laid the Christ child in the manger.
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).”