Is Christmas the season of giving or is it a time of getting? While everyone but the most hardened grinches usually insist that giving is more important, most of us do need something in return. And it’s not necessarily anything with a hefty price tag.
I think what matters most is simply showing each other that we have value. There’s often a gap between what we attempt and what we can actually pull off, but hope springs eternal. I’m the sort of person who needs optimism, so I keep trying.
Recently, I’ve joined the music group at our church. Part of that entails planning for a children’s choir at the Christmas Eve mass, and there’s always a certain amount of head-scratching to nail down details. When can we schedule practice so everyone can make it? Do we have enough choir robes to garb all the heavenly host? And where were the angel wings stashed the last time the storeroom got cleaned out?
When all that’s added to the normal holiday argy-bargy, it can be tempting to chuck the whole idea, but then I remember what the Christmas story has meant to me.
As a child, I was fairly devout. Kind, gentle Lutherans taught me about Jesus, and they were thoughtful people who believed in taking children’s religious education seriously. My many questions always received real answers, even to the point of Pastor Steen scheduling a special appointment to speak with me, just like I was an adult. I read my entire children’s Bible, and I liked most of the tales, but the nativity story held a special place in my heart. Perhaps it was because Jesus came to earth as a baby, and maybe it had something to do with the animals in the manger (I was always an animal lover). And I’m sure the stack of gifts slowly accumulating under the tree added a certain something to the anticipation as well.
I’d spend hours imagining what it must have been like, with the star shining brightly overhead, and the terrifying realization that God’s own son was about to be born without a roof to shelter him. It must have meant so much to be given even the reprieve of a place in a stable, although adults couldn’t seem to decide if it was made out of wood or if it was in a cave. I hoped it was wooden because stone always seemed so cold in the winter, and I’d never seen a creche with a fireplace.
The music captured my imagination, too. Lutherans sang a lot—all the verses to every song—but I’d still go home and play carols for hours afterward on our record player. I still remember the thrill of being able to belt out every stanza of Joy to the World without looking at the words. And I practiced Silent Night until I could sing it by heart even in German.
And then the great news came. All the kids at Ascension Lutheran were stepping up to the big stage—we were going to be performing at church during the Christmas Eve service. I was beyond excited.
“Can I be Mary?” I asked my mother, who replied that the coveted role was going to Pastor Steen’s daughter, Sari.
My immediate reaction was to think that this was hardly fair. Sure, Sari had been recently adopted. She’d traveled all the way from Korea, and she was shy and spoke little English. And okay, we should make her feel welcome. And not even having any parents—that must have been tough. But did all that mean she should get to play Mary? Well, actually, when I looked at it that way, it probably did.
I hoped she really enjoyed it, though. It was still hard not to feel wistful about it.
However, I threw myself into my lesser role as one of the heavenly host. After all, it could’ve been worse. Some of the boys were stuck wearing costumes that looked suspiciously like old bathrobes. We angels got to wear flowing white gowns with golden wings and actual halos. I had no idea who thought of sticking a silly star on the top, but I got past that because we were also going to sing.
It turned out my one foreign language skill would not be required—Silent Night would be sung in English. The days crept past, dragging their feet without mercy. When, oh when, would the Advent calendar finally run down? I played my records over and over, and it was still taking forever to get to Christmas.
But of course, the great evening finally came. Patient mothers took nervous angels on multiple trips to the bathroom and helped us smooth out our robes afterward. Fidgety shepherds were quelled with stern looks from the pastor. Sari took her place next to the manger and beamed at everyone. I think she was the most joyous Mary I’ve ever seen, including all the movie versions.
Pastor Steen read us the nativity story from Luke, and then our big moment finally came. The whole cast—all eleven of us—broke into Silent Night. We sang along with the guitar and hit every note, even the boys who’d hardly practiced, and the whole congregation joined in for the second and third verses.
And as our voices merged together, it didn’t matter that our baby in the manger was only a doll—Jesus was more real to me than he’d ever been before. Peace on earth didn’t just seem possible; it felt inevitable. And every person in that church received that great gift and gave it back to everyone else.
What I’d like most is for all of you to live a moment like that this Christmas. And may you also find a way to pass it on to someone else, so the gift never stops.