As far as I’m concerned there is only one way to open Christmas presents and that is the way I did when I was growing up. To find out if you did it right, keep reading.
Our Christmas was perfect because it didn’t follow the calendar. With18 shopping days left, if I was out of underwear and needed new ones, my mom threw the package into the bathroom as I was stepping out of the shower. “Merry Christmas,” she would yell as the gift lie soaking on the floor.
We saved the majority of the presents for Christmas Eve, but opening hour came sooner each year until the Night Before Christmas rapidly became the Morning Before Christmas. Some years we even persuaded dad to let us open on the morning before the Night Before Christmas.
However, no matter when we opened gifts, we would always begin with my dad reading the Biblical Christmas story followed by a prayer. During the prayer, we closed one eye, feigning a moment of religiosity, and kept one eye on the gift to be opened first.
Posed like runners on a block, we awaited the prayer’s predictable conclusion. As Dad enunciated the first syllable of “amen,” hands were poised over the gifts and as he pronounced the second syllable, paper was flying.
Ten minutes later, there was a “scheduled hold.” The delay came because my mom would run out of gift tags and there were, inevitably, several mystery packages. My mom would take a minute to examine or shake a package before she might say, “Here, Norris, I’m pretty sure this one is for you.” Sometimes her memory served her well and sometimes I opened packages filled with my sister’s underwear.
Growing up with those memories presented some challenges when I first went to my wife’s home for Christmas. Her family was steeped in tradition and rules. While my mother -in-law never forgets a gift tag, her grandchildren enjoy the treasure hunt that ensues when she realizes she has again forgotten where she has hidden a gift
Grandma was always the gift distributor deciding who got what when. When your moment came to receive a gift, you must begin by reading the gift tag and the accompanying mush or poem.
Then, following a time-honored ritual, you must raise your gift above your head and comment on the pretty paper. To substantiate your compliment, you must exercise great care in unwrapping the gift and all the while swearing your intentions to preserve the paper for next year. You are encouraged to mix compliments about your current gift with compliments over gifts received in previous years wrapped in the same paper.
Once unwrapped, bows, paper and ribbons are placed in their respective recycle bins. But if you ever rip the paper, making it unusable, there is a collective “ah” in the room. This endurance ritual goes on for hours and the weak fall by the wayside.
By the end of the gift-opening marathon, (one year we took a break for lunch and a nap) the bins are full of paper because my mother-in-law individually wraps every item. If you get a remote control car, you get the car, the batteries, and the remote control in three separate boxes.
Somehow through 22 years of marriage, my wife and I have found a way to honor both family traditions, as have most of you. This leads me to a question:
If we can make it though the quirky traditions and expectations of our in-laws then why is it so hard for us to understand why a woman wears a certain headdress or why a man walks his family to Temple on Saturday or why a couple declines alcohol at your holiday party?
As a chaplain I have wrapped crystals to wrists, put healing blankets on the bed, burned incense and put garlic under the bed. In doing these things, I find that there are many different cultures that all express the hope of “peace on earth and good will toward men.”
We tend to let the different cultures, traditions and languages of our community create a barrier for us in a way God never intended. I once enrolled in a Spanish class because I wanted to bridge such a barrier by learning to read classic Biblical passages to Spanish-speaking patients. My progress was poor, but one afternoon I met a Spanish-speaking woman who was waiting for news from the surgeon about her husband. Her husband dying and everyone knew it.
I opened a Spanish New Testament and butchered the 23rd Psalm. The woman commented to her daughter and her daughter translated. “I barely understood a word of that, but tell him,” she said grinning, “I think he knows Spanish in his heart.”
We need not know every culture, but we can show a determination to “know them in our hearts.” We can resolve this New Year to find appreciation for those who come from different faiths, traditions and nations. In making such a resolution, we renew the principle that melted and molded us into a nation.
To make such a resolution does not mean we have to forfeit our Christian beliefs, but in a world that is fighting so much over differences, I think it is up to many of us to find, and find quickly, our similarities.