In my first draft of this blog, I started out, "To be honest, my Christmases growing up were largely about toys." But I have decided that that was not true. My Christmases growing up were about joy and about being loved by the people around me. I also have memories of sadness and of anger and of struggle that happened at Christmas time, but I loved Christmas because we were together. I had lots of family to love me. And I loved them.
It did delight me all the way to my core to hear my dad shout up the stairs (after he had made the coffee), "Someone has been down here and left a lot of junk!" The five of us would come racing down, and as I got older, I would stop and save looking at my pile until I had watched my brothers and sisters be amazed at theirs. My parents, my mom especially, worked really hard at picking out gifts. She would drive me miles to find dinosaur things for me (they weren't so popular forty some years ago), and she would arrange our piles of gifts for the best effect. Each of us would have a stuffed animal that was not only the right animal for us but that had passed the huggable test. Christmas presents were only one of a million ways that my mom showed that she loved us -- she knew what would delight us and took pleasure in giving to us.
Our family did not go to church and there was not a nativity scene anywhere in our house -- that was next door at my grandmother's -- but there were countless lessons in grace. Looking back, I think of it as a kind of schooling -- Grace 101.
One of Dad's contributions to the spirit of Christmas was reading to us, and one of his favorite Christmas poems was by A.A. Milne. It is called "King John's Christmas", and I can hear my dad's deep voice reading it, remembering even where he paused to breathe and exactly what it felt like to hear him begin.
King John was not a good man --
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days. . . .
The poem told the story of a king who no body liked. The Christmas cards on his mantel were sent to him by himself. No one ever came to visit him, and no one ever gave him presents.
The poem tells the story of King John sneaking away upstairs to hang "a hopeful stocking out." He writes Santa a long letter about all the things he'd like for Christmas. A few hours later, after some soul searching, he amends his list to just one present: an india-rubber ball. "But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all, Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball.
I knew the poem so well that I could recite it silently in my head as my dad read it to us, but every year I would feel the deep concern in the pit of my stomach. Okay, he was not a good man, but he was also a sad man. I wanted some bit of joy for poor King John.
Dad would get to that fateful moment on Christmas morning when "King John said grimly: 'As I feared, Nothing again for me!"
My heart would sink.
But the poem kept going. King John was standing by the window -- I knew he was really cold standing there -- and he was watchng the children playing with their new toys. I wanted to weep for him. But then --
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounded and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!
AND, OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS,
MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL
FOR BRINGING HIM
A BIG, RED,
The Santa Claus who kept lists of naughty and nice had gone off script. The bad man got a present anyway. It was not about being worth being loved. It was about being loved.
This may sound strange to you, but, looking back, I think of this as an introduction to the gospel.
I do believe that it matters how we behave. We should treat others well so that they enjoy loving us. Yes and yes and yes. We are called to act with love and kindness and grace.
And when all is said and done, the score cards that tallied up our points for being good and demerits for being bad are not what it is all about. Our home has been in the very heart of God every second of our existence.
I am grown up now, and I choose to spend Christmas Eve at church, and it is there that I find the best Christmas story. In fact, the story of God bursting into the world as a tiny baby who is actually the King of Kings and Love Incarnate undergirds the poem my dad read to me.
Forget everything else if you need to. Just love. Love with abandon and with delight.
For God is love. God with us.
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