Music and lights, family, food and fellowship…Christmas washes over the land like a warm sigh. But the experience of Christmas changes as one ages. Gifts with my name on the tag took top spot in my earliest memory. Things shifted when I realized that Christmas meant giving as well; that giving good gifts felt, in its own way, as marvellous as getting them.
Christmas changed again for me when I realized that not all gifts, and none of the best ones, come wrapped in holiday paper. Sometimes they come disguised as something entirely different. While waiting in the doctor’s office last week, the conversation flowed into talk of Christmas. The woman sitting across from me shared what happened in her community on Christmas Day 2017.
Our legendary Saskatchewan cold (minus 43 degrees that day, with a wind chill) seized up the mechanics of a passing Via Rail train carrying 98 holiday travellers. They had to leave the train and walk to the nearby community centre, where they sheltered until a bus arrived later that day to transport them to Winnipeg.
The village of Spy Hill, population 300, made national news that year for the warm hospitality villagers shared with the stranded passengers. She told how musicians travelling on the train had entertained everyone while they waited. She recalled village people bringing toys from their homes for the youngest passengers to play with. The hall, already decorated for a private Christmas party provided the perfect backdrop. Soon the place took on a festive atmosphere.
Residents made pancakes. Brought in hamburgers. Some assembled sandwiches to feed the passengers on the next leg of their journey. The woman in the waiting room helped. Everyone helped. “I’ve never made so many sandwiches in my life!” She’d buttered one endless line of bread, assembled hundreds of lunches. For hours, it seemed. “I could barely stand up when we got out of there,” she laughed. Her own Christmas plans had to be put on hold, “but we all felt so good, just knowing we’d been able to do something to make the day better for those people. That was the best gift.”
Villagers went back to their homes tired but joyful. So did the passengers on the train. It was a Christmas to remember—a gift wrapped in the unlikely packaging of an untimely breakdown.
Mary and Joseph, stranded on what was likely a chilly Bethlehem night, received no such hospitality. Their son had been Heaven-sent. The promised and long-awaited Messiah, God’s son, who came to rescue a world filled with sin and sorrow; deserving only God’s judgement. The gift of gifts, wrapped in rags and placed in a manger. The gift of love and mercy the wayward world didn’t earn and could never pay for.
“For unto us this day is born a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!” Jesus. The gift with our name on it, if we accept. The gift we can also give. This third week of Advent, we celebrate…“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!”