The One Real Present at Christmas
In the wintry time when I was small and green, the snow fell so deep and for so many days that I forgot we were at war. That was hard to do because I could sense my parents’ tense emotions. Two of my three older brothers were gone away to fight. I was so wrapped up in wool and flannel against the cold that I felt like a Christmas tree ball in shape if not in size. Our little town in Pennsylvania was smothered in snow. The house then is gone now so many years later, along with all the houses along the street. They were torn down to widen the road into a main street. When we lived there, the street had only been paved recently but you couldn’t tell; the plows could not keep up with the downfall. I loved to run outside and stick my tongue up to the grey sky so full of flakes floating falling onto the already-packed crunch under my galosh-clad feet.
Christmas came easy that year, surrounded by the glow and warmth of the coal fire. I got a stocking with the usual goodies: candy canes and oranges. There were several lumps of coal also, to remind me that I was not the best of small boys that year.
I’ve written about this before but I can say it again: there was one main present at the holiday season. Perhaps it was because we were poor; perhaps it was a matter of conscience. I’ve never been sure. My folks made it into a matter of conscience.
My present that year was an Irish Mail. Nobody knows what they are any more and I’m not quite sure how they got their name. It was a four-wheeled contraption that you sat on. The front wheels were mounted on an axle that you controlled with your feet to steer. You propelled yourself by pulling a handle back and forth; the handle attached to a rod that in turn connected to an eccentric cog that turned the rear axle. Wow! What a present. I could not ride it because of the snow, but my folks let me go around our small living room to get practice.
I cherished my one present that Christmas. It is not nostalgia to say that there was a lesson here. Our parents impressed upon both me and my older brothers that we received a present at Christmastime that was so important, so extraordinary, so lavish that you could give a hundred presents to each other and not touch its majesty.
That present was the birth of Jesus, whom we call the Christ. Here are some classic words from the great preacher St. John Chrysostom (347-407):
“What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.
For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.
Come, then, let us observe the Feast.”