The first Christmas I can really remember arrived in the cold of 1972.
The youngest of my five-person family, we lived in a little house on the southeast side of St. Joseph, Mo. I was just a few months into my kindergarten year at Skaith Elementary School.
We were new to the community. It was a big city for a bunch of country folks from a tiny town in western Kansas, but we adapted. My brother, the eldest, was 15 and in high school – a high school with a student population that rivaled our hometown, the only community he’d ever really known. My sister was 10 and attended the fifth grade at Skaith; we walked to school together back in the days when kids actually walked to school.
We lived in that little house and in that part of town for three years, and we were regular members at Deer Park Methodist Church, just across the street from our school. I remember Christmas programs and music and listening to my mom sing in the choir. I also recall bright clothes and tall hairdos and men always wearing patterned suits.
For whatever reason, those three years seem to provide the most memorable Christmases for me. For the Harbins, we always opened our family presents on Christmas Eve. In those three years, Santa always arrived while we were celebrating that evening. Since we didn’t have a chimney, he’d knock on our door and scramble away. It didn’t matter how close I was to the door, I’d never make it in time to see Santa fly away.
When I was a first-grader, the toy world was turned on its ear by the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. I wanted one as bad as any boy could want a toy. It was the grooviest thing ever. I made sure Mom, Dad, Mike, Shelly, Santa and Mrs. Claus all knew exactly what I wanted. That December 1973, I just knew Santa was going to drop that stunt cycle on my front porch.
When he knocked on the door on Dec. 24, I rushed to it. I didn’t worry about seeing Santa then. I looked straight to the porch to see my present. Much to my 6-year-old dismay, a not-so-impressive Evel Knievel, battery-operated street bike sat in the place of the ever-so-versatile stunt cycle. I was distraught. How could Santa be so wrong? I ran to my mom and cried, openly sobbing on her lap.
As the years passed, I learned the truth behind those presents and why Santa had to knock on our door. Even though I was a little boy and that this happened 42 years ago, my reaction continues to bother me. Now I see it through my mother’s eyes, she the Santa of record who truly believed she had gotten me the perfect Evel Knievel gift.
As a dad, I now empathize with my mom. I doubt she was as broken-hearted as I perceive her to have been, but even four decades later, there’s a pit in my stomach over that episode.
The reality is we do the best we can, to provide those gifts to our loved ones that they will enjoy and use. It’s a small reflection of the relationship we have with Jesus Christ, who came upon this earth 2049 years ago as a gift from God. Our gifts to others stand as a symbol. As parents, we get those gifts to provide comfort and joy to our children. It’s like a Christmas carol, isn’t it?
For those of us who are faithful, we learned the true gifts we receive this holiday season don’t cost dollars and dimes; those gifts reach into our hearts and make us better.
That’s what Christ’s birth was all about.