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Gifts of the Magi

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 12/12/2008

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“There were the Useful Presents: engulfing mufflers of old coach days and mittens made for giant sloths, blinding tam-o’shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes. The Useless Presents: bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose, troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run... nod Snakes and Families and Happy Ladders. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers.” Thus is Dylan Thomas’ accounting of gifts from his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

It is time for us to gather our gifts for Christmas. Some years one hears we are people of plenty and we buy what we need. This year the talk is about down turn. Taking a small sample of opinion, we considered several approaches to solving the yearly gifts and presents issue.

One mother of five suggested a “Depression-era Christmas.” By this she meant allowing the traditional observances to flourish somewhat freed of the over-abundance which smothers the essence of Christmas. She is known to require her kiddoes to give up some toys to charity. Her ardor in this matter is increased once she spies disorder in one of their rooms.

A Depression-era Christmas allows for making decorations such as paper chains and pop corn balls or creating cards from last year’s mailed assortment and reading stories. It gives new life to the concept of “spiritual bouquets,” cards where the giver has listed all of the Mass intentions, rosaries and other prayers done for our intentions.

Stocking are hung by the chimney with care and many years they are filled with new underwear. We are glad Dylan Thomas made distinction between useful and useless gifts. Maybe we historically have erred too much on the usefulness of the gift. Our son asked for snow tires this year. “You like us to be practical,” he reminded. That truly set us thinking about what gifts should be.

The joy of children unwrapping their gifts keeps us going all year. For those who say “Christmas is for children,” we more or less believe everyone is a child at Christmas. Lessons can be found in the exercise of finding a delightful present for someone. We are required to seriously reflect on the desires of another.

What should we consider before buying a gift? Gifts come in many forms. They don’t have to be something expensive. They should surprise and delight, if possible, and be useful or useless. Let’s face it; the gift should also please the giver. No one wants to expend effort and money for something he or she disapproves of. If you find a videogame or Barbie distasteful, leave it alone.

The Magi ignored troubled times to bring exquisite and valuable treasures to the Christ child. They carried gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they were kings.

In the children’s story, “The Littlest Angel” fretted over his gift to the Baby Jesus. He was a small child in heaven with nothing to give, while the cherubim and seraphim polished their gifts and sang beautiful music. You may recall that the little angel decided to give his prized treasure from earth which he sorely missed. Secured in a box under his bed back on earth there were stones from the river where he played, a robin’s egg and other items a small boy keeps. His box was sent to heaven and after much anguish an embarrassed and tearful boy tumbled in front of the Holy of Holies. Of all the gifts, the most precious was the little box from earth. A great light came over the humble box and the littlest angel’s gift became the star of Bethlehem.

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” a story once included in school anthologies, tells of true gifts, ones requiring sacrifice. A young married couple, short of cash, each sell their most valued treasures -- her beautiful hair and his precious watch -- in order to buy a gift for the other. She buys him a chain for the pocket watch he had pawned and he gives her a set of tortoise shell combs she had long worshiped in a Broadway window. “My hair grows fast she reminds him.”

In our efforts to find something memorable we remember the gifts we loved as children. A Madame Alexander doll with pink taffeta dress, a toy barn built by Dad and painted by Mother complete with farm animals, a Schwinn bike with balloon tires, a Flexible Flyer sled and the glass ball that, when shaken, snows on a church. Our parents gave things our hearts yearned for.

In thinking about the importance of gifts, we wonder about the papal household. What does the Holy Father give to those who surround him? And what is more worrisome, what do they give him? Maybe a buckle for the famed red slippers or a sudoku book....

There are gifts of stories themselves. Reading a Christmas story, and always St. Luke, are gifts. So is memorizing a poem or playing a piano piece. What father would not treasure a piece practiced in secret and presented at Christmas?

It is on Epiphany that our regal wise men find their way into the crèche. During Advent they have been traveling across the room. While it is convenient to open presents on Dec. 25 when families gather, a benefit of lean times gives us an opening to wait until Epiphany on Jan. 6. That way practical shoppers will find prices slashed at the after-Christmas sales.

Finally, after all the shopping, wrapping and decorating, there are surprise gifts of the spirit. Awareness of the path between grandeur and simplicity comes while half-watching midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. (While we are putting some packages under the tree or constructing the 120 piece “easy to assemble” toy.) After the Holy Father concludes prayers, he visits the crèche. We are stunned by the silence which comes over the basilica and we are again struck by the miracle birth of a savior come to earth.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.