’Twas the night before Christmas, and the scene of the crime was Savannah, Georgia. The year was 1989. Our oldest son was almost four. Our second son was eighteen months. The third was still inside trying to kick his way out.
This was the first year that William, our first son, realized that Christmas meant gifts. He knew that according to the “youngest-first rule” at my in-laws’ house, he would be the second in line to open his gifts. At my in-laws’ house, the gifts were divided into piles. All gifts that said “To William” were put in a pile. All “To James” gifts were put in another pile. Once all the gifts were put in the right pile, they were opened one at a time beginning with the youngest and continuing to the oldest. This meant that James was first, then William, then older cousins, uncles and aunts, then Mom, Dad, and finally, grandparents.
As good Christian parents, we had attempted to teach our young boys the true meaning of Christmas. We didn’t expect much from James, but we assumed that William understood that it was better to give than to receive. After all, Jesus was born because God so loved the world that He gave… . . That’s what Christmas is all about—giving. What happened that night let us know that our children had completely missed the point, and that we had to adjust the way we would celebrate Christmas in the future.
All William wanted for Christmas that year was a bow and arrow. His little mind was made up. He knew what he wanted and he would not be denied. He prayed to God for it, and just in case that would not work, he constantly reminded us.
One day, just to make sure I understood his request, he said, “Daddy, I want REAL arrows.”
“Real arrows?” I asked, wondering what kind of damage a three-year old could do with real arrows.
“Yeah, you know the kind with the rubber things on the end. Real ones, not just toys.” He was serious about this. “You mean the arrows that stick to walls and windows if you lick ’em before shooting?” I responded, hoping I knew what he meant by real arrows.
“Yeah! Like in Toys-R-Us.”
Back to the Christmas Eve crime scene in Georgia. Here’s what happened. James, the youngest, was first to open his gifts. Like all eighteen-month olds, he was more impressed with the colorful boxes and ribbons than with the contents. He hadn’t caught on to the materialistic spirit of Christmas yet.
Then came William’s turn. As James continued to play with his wrapping paper and boxes, William anxiously ripped through his first gift in world-record time. He completely ignored the contents and immediately tore into the next one. (At least James played with the boxes.) He only got the wrapping paper half way off this one before tossing it aside and grabbing the next one.
Deborah and I discerned that something was wrong here. “William, maybe you should say thanks and at least act like you appreciate these gifts.”
On the verge of tears, he said, “I thought I would get a bow and arrow, with REAL arrows. That’s all I wanted, and I didn’t get it. I got all this other stuff instead.”
Well, he did get a bow with real (rubber-tipped) arrows. He just hadn’t gotten to that gift yet because it was buried under a mountain of shredded green and red paper.
That was quite a memorable and frustrating Christmas for us. We knew something was wrong, but we weren’t sure just how to fix it.
A few months later, I read a book that described the scene you just read about, only it was happening in another city to another family with small kids. It was sure comforting to know that our experience was not unique. Right now, I can’t seem to remember the name of the book or the author. Anyway, this guy in the book not only had the same problem, but he had identified the root of the problem and had come up with the solution. It was so simple. It opened our eyes and changed the way we have approached Christmas since the disaster of ’89.
On that fateful Christmas Eve I described above, William was upset and ungrateful because he thought he didn’t get a bow with real arrows. The root of the problem is in the word “GET.” His focus was on what he would GET. We will always have a problem when we focus on what we get. Christmas (and life) is all about giving, not getting. The greatest joy and fulfillment comes as we give.
We decided that from then on, we would do our best to focus on what each child wanted to GIVE, not on what they wanted to GET.
In 1989, we asked William what he wanted to GET for Christmas. He wanted to get a bow with real arrows. Christmas Eve came around. It was William’s turn to open gifts. All he could think about was what he would get. He was totally oblivious to what others were getting and to what others had given. We had helped him miss the whole point.
After that, rather than asking our children what they wanted to GET from us, we would ask them what they wanted to GIVE us, their brothers, their relatives, and friends. For the weeks building up to Christmas, our children were taught to focus on what they would GIVE rather than what they would GET.
When gift-opening time would come around at the Murrell house, we put all William’s gifts in a pile, all James’s in a pile, and all Jonathan’s in a pile. We separated Mom’s and Dad’s into piles of their own.
All the gifts in William’s pile would say “FROM William” on the tag. All the gifts in James’ pile that say “FROM James.” The “FROM Jonathan” presents are in another pile, as are the “FROM Mom” and the “FROM Dad.” Once all the gifts were in the piles, each person would take his turn to GIVE all his gifts. This way, the focus is on giving rather than getting. Over the years, our boys learned to be just as excited about giving as getting.
They discovered that it really can be more blessed to give than to receive.