We gave my mother a Christmas gift a few days ago. As she engaged in the process of unwrapping it, I wished we had put it in one of those handy little gift bags, because watching her get into it brought on an episode of PTSD. I had flashbacks of being a kid, and being repeatedly subjected to the unreasonable and painful impact of adult interpretations of what it meant to be ‘patient’. If we’d had Google back in those days, a search for ‘Techniques for Torturing Elementary-aged Children’ would have filled the whole first page with articles about ways to enforce ‘patience’ on kids during standard Christmas procedures. In our family, the interpretation included forcing us kids to wait until the ‘older adults’ had opened their presents before being allowed to even get near our own. My grandmother was the reigning queen of the ‘older adult’ realm in our house. Watching her handle her presents wouldn’t have been so bad if she had acted like she had any interest at all in ever getting to whatever was inside. Grandma never played cards, but poker players nationwide would have paid serious money for a ‘poker face’ like hers. No indications ever leaked out that she thought the package had anything of value in it. Bomb disposal people with a ticking timer display more positive optimism than my grandmother with a Christmas present in her clutches. Didn’t she realize that it had been a whole year since the last time she’d had her hands on one? But instead of exhibiting something normal, like maybe some happy anticipation, all she wanted to do was to relate her shocked astonishment that the giver had relinquished his or her money for her—a viewpoint she reiterated until everyone in the room developed serious misgivings regarding the giver’s capacity for sound judgment.
Grandma was at least four generations ahead of all these compulsive recyclers that fill our land today. She would begin the unwrapping process by untying every ribbon as though it actually felt pain. I wish she would have worried about my pain. It was never enough to just pull a ribbon off. Oh no, ribbons and bows had to be removed with such care that the next recipient wouldn’t have the slightest suspicion that they were recycled. Then there was the paper. She approached that task as though she was a plastic surgeon lifting the 60-year-old facial epidermis of a patient with significant legal resources who expects to look 20 years younger when the process is over. Watching Grandma made me want to collapse into a full-blown meltdown fit, except that fits weren’t allowed for kids. Fits were reserved for adults facing real crises, like not being able to find their car keys.
I voted for abandoning the whole idea of wrapping Christmas gifts altogether. Then Grandma could just blurt out her belief that the people she raised had no idea how to handle money without abusing the rest of us who really didn’t care. Sadly, kids’ votes didn’t count in those days either.
The whole tradition of giving gifts at Christmas is a fascinating phenomenon. It is often related to the visit of the Magi, and many like to think that the Christmas traditions we know today have their roots there and span the thousands of years intervening. Sorry to be disappointing, but that fanciful notion doesn’t really correlate with history. We can certainly relate our Christmas gift-giving with the cargo of the ‘wise men’ if we want to, but outside of the fact that Jesus was actually born as the Scriptures indicate, most of what we practice these days is the product of fertile imaginations and slick advertising. Widespread celebrations of Christmas didn’t begin to be popularized in the western world until the start of the Victorian Age, beginning in the early 1800s. Until then, Christians may have ‘observed’ it, but it was not a widely recognized or celebrated holiday. By the end of that century, Christmas had become the most widely celebrated holiday of the year, but wrapping gifts as we do now was still not a widespread practice. In the early days, Christmas gifts were most likely to be placed in the recipient’s shoes or stockings (obviously). Concealing gifts wasn’t a new idea, but the popular use of wrapping paper didn’t begin until a couple of brothers named Hall stumbled on the idea almost by accident, in 1917, and it caught on. Ever hear of ‘Hallmark’?
Wrapping gifts in ways that conceal what they are can be a lot of fun. It helps to elevate the sense of excitement and anticipation, and prolongs the joy of the moment for both the giver and receiver. There’s something inherently uplifting and optimistic about unwrapping a gift, or watching someone we love discover what we’ve given. The more valuable the gift, the greater the joy for both. God knew that long before we ever figured it out. We find the idea of concealment and discovery interwoven in the New Testament use of the term ‘mystery’. The term as used in the Bible doesn’t carry the meaning we often apply today, that of something that can’t be figured out or understood. God used it to indicate that the full identity, the real meaning, and the ultimate value of something, was yet to be discovered. That idea is nowhere more profoundly presented than in Jesus Christ Himself. Paul repeatedly used the term “mystery” in reference to Jesus’. To the Colossian believers he referred to Jesus coming as
“…the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints” (Col. 1:26).
Maybe it’s a stretch, but I find it fascinating that the angel said to the shepherds that they would find the baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes”. God gave us a gift in Jesus, and the value of that gift was not evident from the outside. The real gift was wrapped in more than simple swaddling clothes. It was the glory of God Himself wrapped in human skin. Like the shepherds, we’re invited to find Him, and to begin the process of discovering who He really is and what He means to each of us. An eternity of Christmas mornings will not suffice to unwrap it all, but it will be a glorious undertaking.
© 2015 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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