EACH YEAR WE DRAW NAMES FOR A GIFT EXCHANGE with the family tree. It’s been a tradition for years to draw names after Thanksgiving dinner and as soon as our tummies are filled with dessert and Wendy’s coffee frappe. The adults draw names and the cousins draw names.
But NOT this year. We decided that since Christmas is not about the gifts, we would not draw names to exchange gifts at Christmas dinner. After all, “Santa” already makes a myriad of visits to our homes on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, filling stockings and stashing gifts under the tree. There is no lack of gifts, thanks to parents, grandparents, friends, and aunts and uncles. So, to rustle up more gifts for an extended family exchange seemed superfluous.
What followed was the biggest Christmas surprise ever. When we arrived for Christmas dinner at Greg and Wendy’s, we found a tree circled with gifts. Of course, we didn’t think anything about the gifts because we had decided not to exchange gifts this year. Still, it was puzzling to walk into a room and see a myriad of beautifully-wrapped, unopened gifts under the tree and in the middle of Christmas Day!
We later learned that St. Nicholas had been there and left a gift for each of us, a jaw dropping moment.
After dinner, Greg had us circle around the tree in the front room and started reading from his iPad with the disclaimer, “This is not a sermon.”
He read to us about St. Nicholas, who was born in the third century after Christ to wealthy parents who raised him to be a devout Christian. The text described how his parents died when he was young in an epidemic, leaving him with a large inheritance. Nicholas had the heart of a saint and in the spirit of the early church who sold all they had to provide for all, Nicholas sold his inheritance to give money to the poor and to assist the needy. Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God. His generosity to those in need and his love for children became legendary.
Reading to us about St. Nicholas and his benevolent gifts and what it means to give a gift unselfishly, Greg’s voice crackled and he paused off and on during the reading as he recalled the greatest gift ever given to man.
“We’ve all been given a gift – Christ’s redemption and eternal life,” he said. “It’s up to each of us to receive it or not. The gift costs nothing and nothing is expected in return. It’s the greatest gift of all.”
He said we could read about God’s gift and the birth of Jesus Christ for ourselves in Luke, Chapter 2.
Hearing Greg express his heartfelt thoughts was a gift in itself but then he said, “Christmas is a perfect time for gifts” and that St. Nicholas had come Christmas Eve and brought us each a gift ….
Next, he grabbed presents from under the tree and called out the names on the tags, passing out gifts to our amazement and delight. And they were the most amazing gifts, chosen with love, wrapped and tied with bows.
Unbeknown to us, the O’Dell family had worked in secret on a Christmas surprise for the family tree since Thanksgiving. They decided that this year they wanted to give a gift to guests who came to their home for Christmas dinner!
There were Razorback jerseys, fur-trimmed capes, a Kitchenaide Mixer (blue!), bird-watching book with a journal and binoculars, blown glass pendant light, art glass fish, leather purse, Vera Bradley bags, sweaters, shoes, portable speaker, silver tea pot with a tea assortment, pitcher and glasses set, dessert fondue set, personalized towels and ceramics, and more – perfectly chosen gifts for each of their guests.
It was a generous outpouring of love so that we were overwhelmed.
Next, it was our turn to pull a surprise. The family tree wanted to thank the O’Dell’s for their hospitality over the years and for making it possible for us to have a story book Christmas.
We all had written notes of thanks and re-told memories of being in their home on holidays and placed them in a hat box. Under the notes and cards was an unfired, snowman pottery bowl, hand-painted by their niece Stephanie, with a note that read, “Bake me like a cookie!”
Yes, we had bought the O’Dell’s a pottery kiln. And earlier that day while we were visiting, the guys quietly hauled the kiln to the porch for an after-dinner, surprise gift reveal.
What is so amazing is that neither of us knew that we were planning a surprise for the other.
We had experienced the O’Dell’s generous spirit over the years as they entertained us for birthdays, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas — but for them to plan a gift for each of us was amazing — it was the cherry on top of an ice cream Sunday, heaped with strawberries and whip cream, or the extra toppings in a DQ Blizzard.