This was originally written for Evangelicals Today magazine, about 19 yrs ago. Since then it has been hidden deep in my archive file (random thoughts), along with piles of other ancient smurrell.com documents and occasionally re-posted around Christmas time. Thought some of you, especially those with small children, might find it helpful this time of the year…
’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 those that say “To William” are put in a pile together. All the “To James” gifts 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 James, but we assumed that William understood that it was better to give than to receive. After all, Jesus was born because God so loved the world that He gave . . . That’s what Christmas is all about—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 pleaded to us for it.
One day, to make sure I understood his request, he said, “Daddy, I want real arrows.”
“Real arrows?” I asked, wondering what kind of damage a three-year old would 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 sticks to windows if you lick ’em before shooting?” I responded, hoping I knew what he meant by real ones.
“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 18 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, but we weren’t sure just how to fix it.
A few months later, I read a book that described the scene you just read about, only it was happening in another city to another family with small kids. It was sure comforting to know that our experience was not unique. Right now, I can’t seem to remember the name of the book or the author. Anyway, this guy in the book not only had the same problem, but he had identified the root of the problem and had come up with the solution. It was so simple. It opened our eyes and changed the way we have approached Christmas since the disaster of ’89.
On that fateful Christmas Eve I described above, William was upset (and a bit ungrateful) 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.
The guy in the book solved the problem by putting the emphasis on what each child was to give, not on what they were to get. We adopted that idea, and it has served us well. 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. All he could think about was what he would get. He was totally oblivious to what others were getting and to what others had given. We had helped him miss the whole point.
From then on, rather than asking our children what they want to get, we ask them what they want to give – their brothers, their relatives, and friends. For the weeks building up to Christmas, our children are focused on what they will give rather than what they will 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 all his 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 have discovered that it really can be more blessed to give than to receive.