what Christmas has meant to me in the past and what it means now. I don't have my thoughts completely sorted out so I hope you'll bear with me while I do that publicly.
When I was a kid, there was no pretense in our family about Santa Claus. I don't remember my cousins believing in Santa nor any gifts from Santa under the tree, unless it was clearly understood that "Santa" was really just the same as "anonymous"---a person who wanted to give somebody a little something extra. We usually drew names within our extended family and so I always knew who was giving me a present. Santa has really never been a real character in my autobiography, nor has the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny, though they were always part of the celebrations. They were stories, not real.
Children of an underpaid Baptist minister didn't have a lot of loot to spend at Christmas; we could earn a little bit by doing chores, but we mostly relied on handouts from the parents to purchase gifts.
I remember a birthday gift I gave my mother one year which scarred me for life because it made her cry! I gave her a library book and spent the quarter she'd given me on myself. I was so ashamed that I went overboard later in life, spending large amounts of money on my immediate family members, trying to make up for it.
And the message was clear, though it took me awhile to sort it out. I started out thinking that a gift I gave that was free to me was worth less than one I spent money on. Since then, my thinking has morphed a few times and I can see that her tears were likely because she felt she had failed to teach me to think of others before myself, not because she wanted a dimestore hanky for her birthday.
So giving and receiving have had a few ups and downs with me. When I was married, I craved romantic presents and always got something useful instead. But we both had a practical bent and I smiled and read love into the crock pot or toaster, as he'd hoped I would. At least until he gave me something he described as warm and furry and kind of bluish grey and useful, which turned out to be a small pistol thrust into a sheepskin holster. Then I wasn't so sure.
After we divorced, there were fewer presents, so each one became extremely important. I gauged the love others had for me by the apparent thought and care given to the gifts chosen. Was it hastily picked out? Ouch. Was it a bargain basement item? Ouch again. Did it come from the grocery store? You get the picture.
Even a little boy's gifts carried risk: did dad pick it out? was it on time? was it carefully chosen? I never doubted my son's love but I most treasured the gifts that he made in shop class or scouts or were clearly picked out just for me and awkwardly bundled in bright paper. (I admit this with trepidation----Favorite Son, don't make too much out of this poor-me phase, because it didn't last that long, though you might see from my struggle how important it is to me that you remember!)
Then one year, there was no way I could be with family or friends on Christmas Day. Everyone was too far away, the passes were slick, the money was tight, and it looked like I would be all alone on Christmas. I had no place to go after the Christmas Eve service but back home, alone. It scared me to think of it.
But as it turned out, that was a turning point for my Christmas spirit. I laid in the supplies for a Christmas Day dinner of prime rib for one, asparagus, a baked potato with sour cream, and mince pie for dessert; I dug out all the John Rutter Christmas music I had plus Robert Shaw and others. I found some special book to read----I don't remember just what---and prepared to be alone and happy. It worked. It was a great Christmas, more restful than I had ever had. The gifts others gave were less important than the gift I gave myself.
In later years I've shared my Christmas Day with other orphans, people who are also alone on that day. This year I'm inviting my musician pals over for turkey and fixings and then we'll break out the instruments and have a jam session. This has become my favorite way to celebrate. Some of my friends are Jewish or Jehovah's Witnesses so it's not a Christmas-themed party. It's just fun.
But Christmas mostly means the beloved work of observing with my congregation the meaning of the birth of a child, of celebrating the winter solstice, of creating a Christmas Eve service that invites the Holy into our midst and sends us home in silence to await the morning and its gifts, both spiritual and material.