Growing up on a farm in rural Oregon, my brother and I often had a second-hand Christmas. The gifts under our tree were toys that our single mom found at yard sales or Goodwill and wrapped in humble, ordinary newspaper. The tree itself she cut down from the side of a road and hauled home in the back of our truck.
Hardly anything we owned was purchased new from a store, including the chicken we ate for Christmas dinner, which surely came from the flock scratching away in the coop beside our barn. So it was with outright wonder that I stood, one year a few days before Christmas, peering through the door of the gift-wrapping room of our town’s only department store, watching a shop lady carefully wrap a gift that someone else had bought.
Oh, the beauty of that shiny paper. And the careful tucks and folds that she made as she taped the paper around a lovely white box. And the most glorious ribbon that she tied on top in a perfect bow. I could only imagine the splendor of the gift inside.
Had the woman looked up from her worktable, she would have seen a wide-eyed child watching from behind a pair of thick glasses, wiry blond hair (that probably hadn’t been washed in a week) chopped off at the shoulders, wearing whatever her brother had recently outgrown. I don’t know whether the woman saw me. We never spoke. Yet she remains one of my strongest Christmas memories.
Gift giving is central to the celebration of Christmas – the exchange of tokens meant to convey our love. This week I drove my 10-year-old son to Renys, a local department store here in Maine, to pick a gift for a classmate as part of his school’s Secret Santa swap. After long consideration, he settled on a stuffed dog and a bag of candy. At home, I helped him tuck them inside a festive bag with tissue paper.
“Presentation is a big part of gift giving,” I said. “You don’t just give something. You wrap it up.”
And I thought of how God wrapped comfort and hope and peace in the form of a newborn baby on that very first Christmas. Emmanuel, God with us. And of the outright wonder of that rag-tag group of shepherds, peering through the door of the gift-wrapping room, a stable full of animals on a Judean hillside. Yet as that child grew, scripture says, “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance. Nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way” (Isaiah 53:2-3 NLT).
We saw the humble, ordinary wrapping and rejected the gift, believing that the package determined the value of what lay inside. Yet God, seeing our need, wrapped heaven’s splendor in humanity so that we who are poor might receive the comfort and hope and peace of his presence. Jesus. God’s gift of love to the world.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture book The Christmas Cradle and four other books celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith.