“For it is in Receiving that we Give”
Season’s Greetings Dear Ones!
Christmas has begun! It’s the Second Day! All those of you with true loves out there should be getting your turtle doves any moment now. No? (Maybe your true love is a little worn out at the moment and needs a foot massage and a nap after getting up at three a.m. yesterday with the excited Believers in your household.) I am relieved that everything that needed to get done finally got done and none of it really matters anyway, in the big scheme of things. As my daughter and I finished wrapping up the last parcels on Christmas Eve, she looked at the empty cardboard tubing leftover from the wrapping paper and sighed. “Just think of all those Bonus Telescopes everyone is throwing away!” she said. We laughed and laughed. Every year we retell our favorite family Christmas story that goes something like this: (with a few Em-Bell-ishments of course!)
Once upon a time, there was a happy little family whose father came from Scotland. Every few years, they would journey back to “The Auld Country” to celebrate Christmas and New Years (Hogmanay) with their relatives and cousins far, far across the sea. They would pack a minimum of clothing and a maximum of chocolates and sale items from discount stores and big-box retail outlets in their British Airways luggage allotment (with plenty of room for duty Free additions). The children assumed that Scotland was “up in the sky” very near to Heaven, because they could not drive to get there. They had to fly. (It had not occurred to them that the plane came down as much as it went up.) When the children were infants, their parents had not had to worry too much about where Father Christmas would deliver their presents. Of course, he would leave them at their home address in America. But this year, the children were a bit older—at six and eight, they might not be able to understand that they were not going to receive anything from Father Christmas in Scotland—especially when they saw their cousins receiving gifts—and it might be hard to delay their gratification for another two weeks until they returned home.
“We told Santa that we wanted him to come to our house in America,” explained their father, “because we don’t want to have to pay for extra luggage on the return flight. We need the room in the suitcases for other things.” The children nodded as if they understood completely. They did not really care as long as they got to be with their Scottish cousins.
“So you’re not going to get any presents, understand?” asked their mother, worriedly.
“But did you tell him we have been very good?” asked one of the children.
“Yes,” said the daddy, “and I think if you are willing to wait until you return from Scotland to receive your presents, maybe Santa might even bring you an extra one—if you keep being good, of course!”
All throughout the advent season, as the candles got lit each week on the wreath in the center of their dinner table, the parents reminded the children again and again why they would not be receiving any presents from Santa on Christmas day. It was not because they were bad children. Goodness and Badness had to surrender to the supremacy of Logic. The mother continually doubted that the children would actually be ok with this on the day but the father had complete faith. This was a Good Plan. It was sensible. What could possibly go wrong with a Sensible Plan? The presents would be waiting for them under their tree in Massachusetts. That was that.
These horrible, Practical parents even instructed all the Scottish relatives to give their children only the tiniest of presents that would not take up too much room in suitcases. Things like sweeties they could consume or tickets to a Pantomime would be ideal—Nothing that might take up space or last long enough to inconvenience the baggage handlers at Heathrow Airport.
For a while, the children really did seem fine with this. They were so thrilled to be in Scotland with their Grandmother and their Aunties and Uncles and cousins! There were parties and pantomimes and long walks in the glens and everyone playing music and singing in the evenings. On Christmas Eve, they all ate mince pies and left out one pie and a frothy pint of Guiness for Father Christmas and some carrots for his reindeer, then went to bed in a big nest of sleeping bags with their cousins. Their parents tucked them in and told them again about the “deal” where Santa was going to go to America instead and that only the Scottish cousins were going to get parcels under the Scottish tree. The Scottish cousins had a flicker of pity for their American cousins. “It’s going to be sad that you don’t get anything,” said one, “but we can share.”
“It’s NOT because we have been bad,” said the wee American boy, though his sister was not of the opinion that he had actually been very Good either.
Downstairs, the adults enjoyed their adult beverages and wrapped presents by the Christmas tree. The U.K. cousins were having a “big” Christmas. There was a lot to wrap. Their dad had just gotten a big promotion and there were two new bikes, a play kitchen, and a huge Scalectrix thing to build, as well as a myriad of other things. The brother-in-law went through four giant rolls of wrapping paper to cover it all. “How is this actually going to be tomorrow when our kids open all this stuff and yours sit by and watch?” he asked. “This is awful! I feel so sorry for them!”
“They will get stuff at home,” insisted their father, who grabbed a cardboard tube and began mock sword play with it. This gave him a Splendid Idea. “Don’t throw these away!” he cried. “I’m going to give these to my kids for Christmas!”
“You’re Joking!” insisted the Scottish brother. “What? We give our kids all this lovely stuff and you just give yours rubbish? That’s not on… That’s worse than giving them nothing!”
“Nonsense,” insisted the Americanized brother. “It’s all in the marketing. Watch this. I can market anything. They will love this. This is going to be great!” He grabbed the clear plastic box the wrapping paper had come in and made a sign. His wife helped him cut one of the rolls into smaller pieces that became hilts when she cut circles through their sides.
“They won’t fit into the original box if we attach the hilts now,” she pointed out.
“Even better!” he screamed. He scribbled “some assembly required” on the sign he was making. “Every good marketer knows that ‘some assembly required’ means the buyer has to invest his own creative energy into the product. This makes it way more valuable, psychologically,” he said, slugging back the last of Santa’s Guinness. His brother shook his head.
“We have enough to make three swords, with this bit left over,” said his wife, holding aloft a section of cardboard tubing about eighteen inches long.
“Bonus telescope included!!” roared her husband. “This is perfect. There are four kids old enough to play with these—three can fight each other and the forth can watch and report on the battle.”
The next morning, the kids were up early. First, they saw the empty Guiness glass and the pie crumbs on the plate. Then they rushed outside and saw the nibbled carrots and the reindeer poop on the lawn, which their father picked up and ATE, saying “Yum! Reindeer poop tastes just like raisins!” to their shrieks of disgust. Their aunt showed them the tiny footprints the elves had left in the butter while they hastily ate a few required bites of a breakfast none of them could taste. Then they saw the tree, shimmering with lights, with heaps of presents under it. The young Americans looked at it with shining eyes, then wilted visibly. None of this was for them… The young Scots tore into their presents and the mayhem began.
After a few moments, the father of the Americans announced, “Hey look!!! Santa DID leave you a present! Look!!” He produced the box. All the children paused, stunned. They had not expected this. The older sister lisped out the large sign attached to the box: “It says ‘To Katie & Calum: Genuine Imitation Viking Do-it-yourself-sword-making-kit with BONUS telescope included!! Made in Hong Kong, packaged in Brussels, shipped by way of Cape Ann. Some Assembly Required. I have left the rest of your presents in Americay. Merry Christmas! Love, Santa”
“Bonus Telescope included?!!!” roared one of the Scots cousins! “Wow! Did we get one?” The Scottish boys began pawing through their presents in search of similar boxes, looking for their “sword making kits.” “Aww…didnae Father Christmas bring anaither?” they wanted to know.
The adults looked at each other in astonishment. They had not expected this! Meanwhile, the Americans were busy assembling their swords and pestering the adults for cellotape and markers. The Scots had paused in their unwrapping and were watching in envy. They dropped their gifts and began to help make the swords. Within moments, three out of four cousins were hacking each other to bits while one looked on through the telescope, and the other gifts went ignored.
“Look what you’ve done!” said the Scottish father to the American father, “You’ve ruined Christmas! Think of the money I spent on all that crap they aren’t even playing with!” which delighted the American father no end.
“Come now,” said the American father with a twinkle in his eye, “the Spirit of Christmas is not about presents but about family togetherness and memories and having a herd of armed children all hopped up on sugar doing battle in your house for the next four days!”
That Christmas has become cherished family folklore that gets better over time. For me, it was a profound lesson in how “trash” received in the right spirit can become treasure. It’s not just the thought of the giver that counts; it’s very much the thoughts of the Receivers as well… I think the best giving and the best receiving are when we are able to bring our authentic selves into the equation—when we bring our own creativity and imagination to the “present,” in every meaning of that word. That’s when macaroni necklaces colored with magic markers become more precious than anything from Tiffany’s.
Allowing ourselves to be Loved, is every bit as much about Receiving as it is about giving. Feeling “unworthy” is the most selfish feeling of all, it turns out. Refusing to receive, or “feeling crummy” when someone does something extra special for us that we did not think to do for him or her, leaves us walled off, separated, unable to commune. It aborts the cycle of giving and makes it crash into an emptiness that replaces the Good with Nothing, Isolation, Emptiness. We trade Heaven for Hell in those moments. When we pause and consider the story of Christmas itself—that a King comes as the humblest, weakest, most vulnerable of gifts, in the dirtiest of packages (a stable)—we see that the story of Love is not about flash and power. Babies are utterly incapable of giving. They teach us Love by being the ultimate in joyful Receivers. Gratitude for what we have changes us internally in ways we cannot imagine and makes for the best legends over time. And that is the miracle of Christmas.
Merry Christmas, Dear Ones!