My parents grew up during the Depression attending small country churches. At the close of Christmas Eve services, children were called down front and each one was given a brown paper sack containing an apple, an orange, nuts still in their shells and several chocolates.
Years later, whenever Dad recalled that tradition, his eyes sparkled reliving the memory. My mother not so much. She always said she suspected the chocolates had been pre-sucked; they tasted cheap and old. You can't blame the woman. Even as a child, she had a discriminating palette.
Cheap chocolates or not, the paper sacks with goodies were an event. Gifts of any sort during the Depression were rare, especially in large farm families with seven, eight and nine children.
When our children were young and we were home for Christmas one year, Mom and Dad gave each of the grandkids a brown paper sack holding an apple, an orange, some nuts and chocolates. This was in addition to the mound of gifts beneath the tree.
When we finished the 8-hour drive home after the holiday, there was a message waiting on the phone when we walked in the door. "Your ungrateful kids left their apples and oranges in the back of our refrigerator. No more fruit for them!" Grandpa and Grandma were teasing, of course, still there was an element of disrespect in the kids leaving behind thoughtfully chosen gifts.
But the paper sacks did not have a context for our children. We had apples and oranges at home. Our children had never known fruit to be a scarcity, just as they had never known bare-bone want, or bread and butter sandwiches.
They didn't appreciate the gift because they had never experienced the need the gift was meant to fill.
The same is true of Christmas today. We don't appreciate the true gift of the season because we don't comprehend the need the gift was given to fill. Consequently, we relegate the gift of Christ to the back of the fridge.
It's not like we don't know we have needs. We know them, all right: patience, love, self-control, strength, courage, faithfulness, forgiveness -- it's just that we have become experts at numbing ourselves to our needs. We mute them by shopping, eating, a litany of never ending activities and placating the deep things that tug for our attention with therapeutic jargon.
The true gift of the season is a perfect fit for our every need. The lasting gift of Christmas is that God took on flesh and bones and was born of a virgin in a stable amid sheep and cattle and straw. The divine descended to earth. The invisible became visible. Angels lit up the skies over Bethlehem, rugged shepherds shook with terror and the Magi changed course to follow the star.
No video game can compete with that drama.
No holiday table setting can hold a fraction of that dazzle.
When a gift like apples and oranges fits a need, there is a cheerful contentment. When the gift of the manger fits a need, there is the joy of Christmas.