’Twas the night before Christmas, and the scene of the crime was Savannah, Georgia. The year was 1989. William, was three and a half. James was one and a half. Jonathan was still inside trying to kick his way out.
This was the year William realized that Christmas meant gifts. He knew that at my in-laws’ house, the gifts are divided into piles. All gifts that say “To William” are put in a pile together. All the “To James” are put together. Once all the gifts have been put in the right pile, they are opened one at a time beginning with the youngest and continuing to the oldest. This meant that James was first, then William, then older cousins, uncles and aunts, then Mom, Dad, and finally, grandparents.
We had attempted to teach our boys the true meaning of Christmas. We had recited the story of the incarnation over and over. We didn’t expect much from an eighteen month old, but we assumed that William understood the Christmas spirit. You know, God so loved the world that He gave His Son . . . That’s the spirit of Christmas - giving.
What happened that night let us know that our children had completely missed the point, and that we had to adjust the way we would celebrate Christmas in the future.
All William wanted for Christmas that year was a bow and arrow. His little mind was made up. He knew what he wanted and he would not be denied. He prayed to God for it, and just to be sure, he begged us for it.
“Real arrows?” I asked, wondering what kind of damage a three-year old could do with real arrows.
“Yeah, you know the kind with the red rubber things on the end. Real ones, not just toys.” He was serious about this.
“You mean the kind that stick to windows if you lick ’em before shooting?” I responded, hoping I knew what he meant by real arrows.
“Yeah! Like in Toys-R-Us.”
Back to the Christmas Eve crime scene in Georgia. Here’s what happened. James was first to open his gifts. Like all eighteen month olds, he was more impressed with the colorful boxes and ribbons than with the contents.
Then came William's turn. As James continued to play with bows and boxes, William anxiously ripped through his first gift in world-record time. He completely ignored the contents and immediately tore into the next one. (At least James played with the boxes.) He only got the wrapping paper half way off this one before tossing it aside and grabbing the next one.
Deborah and I discerned that something was wrong here. “William, maybe you should say thanks and at least act like you appreciate these gifts. What’s wrong with you?”
On the verge of tears, he said, “I thought I would get a bow and arrow, with real arrows. That’s all I wanted, and I didn’t get it. I got all this other stuff instead.”
He did get a bow with real (rubber-tipped) arrows, but it was buried under a mountain of shredded green and red wrapping paper.
That was quite a memorable and frustrating Christmas for us. We knew something was wrong and we had to fix it.
The first step in fixing it was to admit that we were part of the problem. In 1989, we asked William what he wanted to get for Christmas. He wanted to get a bow with real arrows. Christmas Eve came around. It was William’s turn to open gifts. He was totally oblivious to what others were getting and to what others had given. He was upset because he thought he didn’t get a bow with real arrows.
The root of the problem is in the word get. His focus was on what he would get. We will always have a problem when we focus on what we get. Christmas (and life) is all about giving, not getting. The greatest joy in fulfillment comes as we give.We had helped him miss the whole point.
Here's how we fixed the problem. From then on, rather than asking our children what they want to get, we started asking them what they want to give to their brothers, their relatives, and friends. For weeks building up to Christmas, our children now focused on what they would give rather than what they would get.
Now, when gift opening time comes at the Murrell house, we put all William’s gifts in a pile, all James’ in a pile, all Jonathan’s in a pile. We separate Mom’s and Dad’s into piles of their own.
In William’s pile are all the gifts that say “From William” on the tag. In James’s pile are all those that say “From James.” The “From Jonathan” gifts are in another pile, as are the “From Mom” and the “From Dad.”
Once all the gifts are in the piles, each person can now take his turn to give gifts. This way, the focus is on giving rather than getting. Over the next few years our boys learned to be just as excited about giving as getting.
They discovered that it really is more blessed to give than to receive.
This blog was originally written for Evangelicals Today magazine about twenty years ago. Since then it has occasionally been re-posted in December. I thought some of you, especially those with small children or grandchildren, might find it helpful this time of year.