Reading: The Nicest Gifts I Ever Got, Clarke Dewey Wells
During this season of gift giving, a good exercise is to make a list of the best gifts we ever got. That will tell us what is important, for ourselves and for people we want to give gifts to.
While I remember a Daniel Boon hat and a magician set with special affection, the nicest gifts I ever got are in quite another category; the carillonneur at Rockefeller Chapel who let me strike one of the largest tuned bells in the world during his playing of Ein Feste Burg; my mother giving me a complete Shakespeare for my 14th birthday; coach Al Terry saying, ‘Little Wells, grab your bonnet,’ and permitting me to enter as a freshman into my first varsity football game; a beautiful lady on a ship when I was still an acned teenager who kissed my face all over and told me she thought I was handsome; Dr. Henry Nelson Wieman telling me he had thought for several hours about a question I had raised and responding with a written answer the next day in front of the whole class; night after night my father playing catch with me in the back yard until it got so dark we couldn’t see the ball; a Unitarian minister in Kalamazoo who put his arm around me after my father died and kept it there for a long time; a friend who flew several hundred miles to visit me when I was sick; a buddy who went to see three movies with me on the same day.
The nicest gifts people have given me have been enabling, confirming gifts, bestowing understanding and self-esteem, help in time of trouble and delight for ordinary days.
May I suggest that you, too, draw up your list of the nicest gifts you ever received. I think it will give some perspective to the kinds of gifts we really want to give to other, this Christmas or anytime.
Sermon: “Presents and Presence”
In her famous opening line of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott writes, “’Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
“The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
“Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, ‘You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t.’ And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.
“’But I don’t think the little we should spend would do any good. We’ve each got a dollar, and the army wouldn’t be much helped by our giving that. I agree not to expect anything from Mother or you, but I do want to buy (a book) UNDINE AND SINTRAM for myself. I’ve wanted it so long,’ said Jo, who was a bookworm.
“’I planned to spend mine in new music,’ said Beth, with a little sigh, which no one heard but the hearth brush and kettle holder.
“’I shall get a nice box of Faber’s drawing pencils. I really need them,’ said Amy decidedly.
“’Mother didn’t say anything about our money, and she won’t wish us to give up everything. Let’s each buy what we want, and have a little fun. I’m sure we work hard enough to earn it,’ cried Jo, examining the heels of her shoes in a gentlemanly manner.”
The story of these sisters, living in hard times, traces their growth into maturity and their movement toward wisdom in the search for happiness, or contentment, at least. It was written in 1867 and is a fictionalized biography of Louisa May Alcott and her sisters.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo.”
Actually, the idea of giving Christmas presents was only a generation or so old when the story was written. It began in the early part of the century and didn’t really take hold until well into the 1820’s with the changes brought about by industrialization and the movement away from the farm and the increase in manufactured good.
Stephen Nissenbaum, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, wrote ‘a cultural history of America’s most cherished holiday,’ which he titled The Battle For Christmas, the title suggesting, among other things, the struggle between the religious and the secular celebrations of the season.
Nissenbaum crafts a case for the idea that Christmas is a 19th-century creation — a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins.
He writes, “Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ’s birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year’s food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers.”
He explains that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were so afraid of the association of Christmas with pagan winter solstice revels, celebrated with public drunkenness, and often with violence, that they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas at all.
He lists several factors that contributed to the creation of Christmas as we know it today; for example, Clement Moore’s poem/story, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring…”
This helped to create a more genteel version of Christmas, explaining that the holiday previously included roaming bands of rowdies demanding tribute from the wealthy – a sort of ‘trick or treat,’ with the actual threat of tricks if there was no treat!
He names the Unitarians as having a special influence of the development of Christmas as we know it – last week we referred to a new book about Dickens calling him ‘the man who invented Christmas,’ an invention facilitated by the story of Scrooge and his Christmas Eve transformation, his personal reformation!
Dickens puts the words into Scrooge’s nephew’s mouth, in response to Scrooge’s saying that Christmas has never done his nephew ‘any good.’
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
The phrase, ‘people below them’ is, of course, a clear indication of a class-based society.
In his youth, Scrooge, we were told, apprenticed with Old Fezziwig, so Scrooge was not in the upper class. In a very real sense, then, that Dickens’ readers knew, Scrooge was not a rich man, but a sort of poor man who had a lot of money. He had what the sociologists call ‘cash without class.’
In contrast, the ‘two portly gentlemen’ who came into Scrooge’s office to ask for his donation to the fund they were raising for the ‘poor and destitute,’ suggests that they were from a higher class, since Dickens’ referred to them as ‘gentlemen.’
So they were ‘above’ Scrooge, which Dickens didn’t have to point out to his English readers in 1843.
The newly reformed Scrooge bought a turkey for Bob Cratchit and his family, but he didn’t bring the turkey to him, he had it delivered. It was a present without his presence.
Scrooge went to his nephew’s house for Christmas dinner – he finally showed up. He didn’t bring a present, but he was present, which was the ultimate gift to his nephew, and is the ultimate gift…the gift of presence.
There are layers of truth to Woody Allen’s quip that 80% of life is just showing up. To be fully present to another person is in itself a gift. We cannot be fully present to everyone, all the time, but we all know the difference between taking turns talking and truly listening to another; we all know the difference between sitting in the same room with another person and being fully present to one another. We all know the difference between truly caring about the other and being patronized – to be treated in a condescending way as opposed to the respect that is required in a healthy relationship of equals.
When Scrooge showed up at his nephew’s house he says, “It’s me, Fred, your uncle Scrooge. Will you let me in?”
You can show up and not be ‘let in.’ You can be in proximity without being in relationship, or you can be in an unbalanced relationship where one is above and another below.
Or you can achieve what Martin Buber refers to as an ‘I – Thou’ relationship, characterized by mutual respect wherein something sacred happens, at least in Buber’s definition.
At the end of the story Scrooge shows up at the office early, hoping to catch Bob Cratchit coming in late so he could set the stage for taking another step toward a relationship characterized by mutual respect, by paying him a respectable wage and telling Bob that he plans to share a ‘bowl of smoking Bishop’ with him at lunch time – a face-to-face meeting; a major step.
“A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
Scrooge says, ‘We will discuss your affairs, Bob.” In other words, I want to be present to you, for once. That’s the ultimate suggestion of his transformation.
At a recent meeting of my ministers’ group, The Greenfield Group, one of my colleagues asked us early in the day to think of a special gift we received in our lives. That afternoon, at our final chapel service, she invited us to talk in a few sentences about the gift we recalled.
I told about a gift I got from a member of the first church I served, Ruth Codier, in Lexington. I had an early encounter with Ruth when I had to edit a piece she wrote for the church newsletter, and when she found out that I did that she approached me and told me in no uncertain terms never to do that again, and as she was leaving my office she added, “And don’t try to be my minister; I don’t like ministers!”
During the next couple of years we gradually became friends and she later joked, “I still don’t like ministers, but I like having you as a friend.”
So, after leaving Lexington to begin my first senior ministry I invited Ruth to join me and my family for Thanksgiving dinner in Attleboro, and when she was leaving she handed me an envelope and said, “This is for later.”
As she drove away I opened the envelope and read the poem she had written to me: “Some couldn’t stand me/you stood me/ it may be/because you stood me/ I’m more standable.”
It was one of the most significant gifts I’ve ever received; it was an affirmation of the gift of presence, an I-Thou relationship, which is built moment by moment over time, and it lives long after the other person is no longer physically present.
What struck me most, that day, at our chapel service, as I listened to my colleagues recall a memorable gift they had received, was the connection between the gift and the giver of the gift and the sense of appreciation for that person in their lives at that time, and clearly present to them still, just as Ruth is still present to me.
Now I want to ask you to think of a gift you received, and, time permitting, we’ll share a few, but you can continue to do that with one another over coffee, or Christmas dinner.