Ever been to a white elephant gift exchange? Every year when we lived in southern Ohio, one of the organizations to which we belonged would have its annual Christmas party. One of the segments of that party was the white elephant gift exchange. It was the highlight of the evening. You know the ritual — everyone contributes some worthless gift or a gift that they have been wanting to get rid of — that old shoe or tie that they received as a gift some years ago but never got rid of. As we each open our gifts, we have the opportunity to keep, or trade or steal other gifts already opened by others in the group, and we exchange and steal and open gifts all evening, laughing as we go.
Pastor John Huffman tells of one such party he and his wife hosted: “One year we hosted the annual church staff Christmas luncheon at our home. We exchanged white elephant gifts, laughing until something stopped all of our fun. The 10th or so person to pick a gift lifted from a gift bag a little baby Jesus in a manger. My wife, Anne, was stunned when she saw it. It looked just like the central figure in the nativity scene that was on our living room table. She left the room to check our nativity set, and sure enough, the baby Jesus figurine was missing. Somehow it had fallen off the table and into the gift bag on top of the tissue paper in which the real gift was wrapped. We all had a good laugh and returned Jesus to the nativity scene. The more I thought about it, though, this little incident was quite telling. So often Jesus is swept off center stage in all of our Christmas festivities, relegated to a kind of white elephant status. How sad, when he is so central!”
That is sad, isn’t it? How often do we so concentrate on gift-giving, tree-lighting, food-eating, family-gathering, football-watching, and a multitude of other holiday activities rather than the central them of Christmas everywhere and for all time — the birth of Jesus Christ.
But, my friends, at the risk of sounding heretical, even thinking about that can seem almost humdrum and ho-hum. I even remember as a kid, growing up in small-town southern Ohio, every Christmas we would put on our annual Christmas pageant. You know the routine. We would meet every Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas practicing our lines, all of us kids from elementary to junior high school age, working on telling the Christmas story – Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, even, depending upon having enough kids to play all the parts, the innkeeper. And if there was a brand newish baby in the church, we would even have a real live baby Jesus. And the irony of all of this is that on the night of the actual play, Santa Claus would come out of the back at the end with some sort of small candy gift for everyone in the congregation.
Now, I know it was not so intended, but talk about sweeping Jesus off center stage.
When our kids were little, and even moreso as they grew up and had kids of their won, it was the charge of the dad (then) and the grandpa (now) to play with them. Oftentimes, that mean that I would get up out of my easy chair and get down on all fours and allow any or all of them to get on my back and ride me like a horse through the house. At times, there would be more than one of them on my back, and occasionally, at least four (of the six grandchildren) were there. That not only explains why my back hurts just thinking about it now, but also why I do not do that anymore. Getting down on their level with them made the game all the more enjoyable and helpful for all.
The truth of the matter is that Christmas is, well, about Christ. In the Gospel of John we read that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:1,14) The truth about Christmas is that God the Creator became a creature, who dwelt among us and became one of us. He got down on our level with us, and Christmas is the celebration of that very event.
That, my friends, is what Christmas is all about. So this Christmas, as you light the tree, open the gifts, gather with the family, eat the food, watch the games, and even attend the Christmas pageants, celebrate his coming with a new energy and a new vigor, but don’t sweep Him off the table and treat Him as white elephant gift. It is a very trite expression, but Jesus is the reason for the season.
Merry Christmas, and God bless!
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former pastor in the Hillsboro area. He can be reached at email@example.com.