I was barely six, but I knew our family tradition for Christmas. After purchasing a small tree, Dad would bring it home and wrestle with the tree stand until the evergreen stood submissively in the spot that Mother had selected. First the multi-colored lights were arranged, and then the familiar ornaments were hung. After that, it was my turn. The tinsel. Oh, the pain of hanging each piece of tinsel until one branch was completed. It seemed to take hours to hang all that tinsel, and if two pieces were stuck together, there was the unwritten rule that they had to be tediously pulled apart and each one hung separately. I don’t remember signing up for the tinsel-hanger job, but it didn’t occur to me to protest. It was my job – until my sister was born and was old enough to hang tinsel. I convinced her that tinsel hanging was an enviable station. Then came the waiting.
Christmas gifts at my house were often home-made. One winter I needed a warm coat, so Mom cut up her coat and made a coat for me for Christmas. Looking back, I wonder what she used for a coat. Another Christmas, she made me a stuffed animal, a kitten. I still have it. Even my Christmas stocking was made by Mom. I still have that too.
After reading the Christmas story from Luke and praying, we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve; Christmas morning my stocking held more surprises. An apple, an orange, a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa, a toothbrush, a candy cane, and maybe a book. And even though I knew what would be in the stocking, I looked forward to the Christmas morning tradition every year.
But this year was different. I had made it known that I wanted a train set for Christmas. The train set was just the beginning, really. I dreamed about having bridges and trees and little railway signs. A whole community emerged in my young mind, with people and cars and stores and houses, and a train that circled around it all, whistling its happy, trainly-tune. Sometimes Dad worked a second job because we didn’t make enough pastoring. I knew this and hesitated to ask for an expensive toy. And I just knew a train set would be expensive. But the desire for that train set was so intense, I could barely contain my little, six-year-old self.
As Christmas neared that year, I sat by the decorated evergreen tree and imagined the sound of my own train. I wished with all my might for a train set, but I did not pray for it. I wasn’t sure how God felt about me asking for a toy, so instead, I badgered my parents. Christmas Eve arrived. I stared at the small array of presents under our tree. Were any of them the right size or the right shape for a train set? I could barely sit still while my parents read the Christmas story and then prayed. They seemed to pray for a very, very long time. I don’t remember much else about that evening except that Dad reached behind the tree and pulled out a wrapped box that had been hidden. As I tore the paper away from the package, there it was – a train set! I jumped up, hugging my mom and then my dad. Together we pulled the silver track from the box and began assembling the rail, making a large circle in our living room. Then came the heavy, dark train engine and the colored box cars. Last was the cutest little red caboose that completed my new train.
“Ready to go, Bon,” Dad smiled. “Go ahead; turn it on.” The switch was on the engine, and as I moved it into position, the little train took off, pulling the colorful cars behind it. Suddenly the train trumpeted a train whistle, and I clapped in delight. “This is the best present!” I shouted. I could tell my parents were pleased with my elation. This was my first big gift, and I was full of excitement and pure joy. I played the rest of the evening with my new train set, and thought about where the roads should go, what building I should start with, and how to make an overpass as I planned the community that would be built around my new train. When it was time to crawl into bed, I went to sleep smiling. Tomorrow morning was Christmas Day, and there would be a Christmas stocking filled and waiting for me. Maybe it would have a little something to add to my train set… Christmas morning I opened my eyes and listened to my parents’ voices coming from the kitchen. There was unusual quietness in the house, but that didn’t stop me from bounding from my bed and racing out to find my Christmas stocking. You guessed it: an apple, an orange, a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa, a toothbrush, and a candy cane. Dad and Mom came and sat on either side of me, snuggling me into the middle. “Bonnie, last night there was a house fire on our block.” “Whose house?” I asked. “It was the family just a few houses down; the one with the little boy.” That little boy was a couple of years younger than me, so I didn’t play with him. But I knew who he was. My dad looked at me with dark, tender eyes. “This family lost everything.” He looked over at Mom and then back at me. “The mom,” Dad paused. Moisture formed in his eyes. “The mama was lost in the fire.” The Mom? Somebody’s mom was gone? How do you suddenly not have a mom? I felt an unfamiliar tightness in my chest. Dad cleared his throat and quietly asked, “Bon, will you – will you give the boy your train set?”
My little, child-soul was flooded with emotion and questions that cannot be articulated. I’m not able to tell you the process that my mind went through, only that I somehow made a bigger-than-six-year-old decision to give away my new train set. You’d probably like to hear that my parents bought me another train set. But that didn’t happen. That Christmas, when I was six years old, I gave away my long-awaited, dearly-hoped-for Christmas present. I didn’t know that this profound experience would become my most treasured Christmas memory. I didn’t know that it would follow me into my adult life and shape in me a insightful attitude about sacrifice and giving. I did not expect that the fallout would be a deep sense of satisfaction, and that it would be the dawn of a godly pattern for my life.
Lastly, I didn’t know that the most priceless gift I would ever receive would be the act of giving away something that had been the desire of my heart. When Jesus said that it causes more joy to give than it does to receive, He was telling the truth.