The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.
~ Pierre Corneille, Le Menteur
Most memories are merely past recollection, but a rare few are ~
the living of which interminably alters the future.
I was just 12 years old when Christmas forever changed for me and my younger sisters: our mother and father decided to teach us a powerful lesson about sacrifice.
It started as every other Christmas had begun, with a lengthy wish list; we would likely receive everything we wanted. Certainly, my parents instilled a servant’s heart in each of us, but we were children of privilege. Aware, not arrogant.
We’d count and shake our gifts repeatedly in the days that lead to Christmas. Their size and shape stirred imagination, speculation and temptation–would anyone notice if we peeled back the tape the teensiest of bits? The threat of Santa’s telescopic eyes was enough to keep us honest. And Mama’s ire.
Anticipation and excitement awakened us when hours were still wee, and becoming human alarm clocks we jumped on Mama’s and Daddy’s bed–how could they STILL be sleeping?! Groggily they followed us into our family room, where each of my three sisters and I quickly gathered our stash around us. The floor was carpeted in Christmas “snow”–shimmery wrappings and ribbons and bows–and with great restraint we took turns opening our gifts from each relative before moving on to the next.
Open – smile and pose for a picture with each present – repeat. My parents, brilliant, figured out how to make each moment last as long as humanly possible.
Our tradition including lining up by the phone to call and thank each relative. This time my father stopped us…the first indication something was different.
Daddy’s gaze fell on each of us as he began, “You girls sure got some thoughtful gifts this year. Do you think you can chose your favorite, the one you’re most excited about?”
My sisters and I were giggles and laughter, and though Mama had to help my three-year-old baby sister, I knew exactly what I wanted to choose: my Sony Walkman cassette player! It was the coolest thing I had ever received, and something about it made me feel older, like a teenager.
Daddy then asked us to set them on the hearth by Mama, and an uneasiness began to set in as he continued talking. He reminded us how richly we were blessed as he began to read from Scripture, “…from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Where was the Christmas story we were accustomed to hearing? The shepherds, the wise men, baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling?! Butterflies invaded my stomach, and as I looked at my sisters I realized they didn’t know where this was going yet. I hoped I was wrong.
Daddy started talking about children, other children, who would receive nothing for Christmas. Not the ones we heard about through Operation Christmas Child or starving in Third World countries…but children who lived in our hometown.
I can still see Daddy’s hand clutching Mama’s, fingers tangled in a ball. Whatever was coming next they were united in, and I think they needed each other’s strength to follow through.
“Your gifts, your favorite gifts, are an offering,” he explained, “and they’re going to be placed by God’s leading in the hands of another child who wants them and will love them just as much as you do….” He gently clarified that these gifts were not ours and would be used to convey an important message.
It would take time before I would fully understand the “important message” was mostly for me and my sisters.
Tears flooded our eyes and and questions spilled in buckets. This wasn’t fair! We were in disbelief. Surely our parents would change their minds and let us give away our old toys or at least our second favorite gift. Or maybe it was all a joke. Or a child’s nightmare from which I’d awaken.
Straws I grasped, all out of reach.
I felt the weight of their anguish as my younger sisters awaited my response. Never had my role as Big Sister demanded more of me and I knew they would follow my lead. Mama knew exactly what to do to calm our tears–she began praying…over us, over the toys we were about to give away, over the children who would receive them. I can still hear her satin voice, her soothing words. This was no act of manipulation or coercion, Mama’s was a prayer of worship, and God’s presence and peace invaded our hearts.
I loosened an ironclad grip on my right to entitlement, to middle class affluence, and walked over to the hearth to place my walkman by the fire. One by one, my sisters did the same.
Obedience was our only choice, really, but it would take years to completely understand. I saw the good in our actions, I felt sorry for poor children, but I was still a child who liked my things.
But isn’t that how the best lessons are learned–well taught, hard-fought and then written on our heart?
Like a real Santa, Daddy collected our gift-sacrifices in a sack and delivered them to a shelter on Christmas day. We still were left with a pile of gifts but each one of our favorites was re-gifted.
Three years later I would accompany him for the first time, something we all were allowed to do the year we turned 15. By this age, each of us actually looked forward to the giving. Yes, it took years to fully understand our tradition; I wrestled with the Lord to decide which gift was truly my favorite. But the great value and impact of our lesson was, is, eternal…
I can’t think of any other teaching in my entire life that taught me more about true sacrifice, the great cost to God for my salvation, the salvation of his children.
Twenty years later, this has become one of our most revered traditions of the Christmas season, one which I continue with my own son. And though some might not understand or agree with my parents’ choices, for me and my sisters it was one of the most meaningful, powerful lessons in our lives.
To God be the glory for allowing me an earthly father who was willing to teach his daughters lessons of eternal value.
* * * * * * * *
My in-laws shared Amanda’s story with us last Christmas, and I’ve wanted to write it down to share with others ever since. With gracious thanks to her for entrusting me with its telling, and I hope it means as much to you as it does to me.
This is one of the most beautiful family legacies I’ve ever heard…though it’s not for everybody. More than anything, I hope you see it as personal challenge to discover ways to make your Christmas traditions meaningful, and to remember the Great Gift and sacrifice we’ve received in Christ.
With love to you and warm wishes for a joyful Christmas! xo
~ Robin, author of PENSIEVE