If someone were to ask you to share your most unforgettable memory of Christmas, what would it be? What would you share?
I have many. Some of them so vivid in my mind that it seems like they happened just a Christmas or two ago. They are still fresh and happy memories that continue to live on inside me across the years.
I'll tell you about one of them. I must have been 6 or 7 years old, surely not more. It was back in the days after the Second World War and times were pretty tough. Many people didn't have a lot of money and our family was no exception. But somehow we still found ways to be happy and also to have happy Christmases together.
There was one gift that I wanted more than anything. It was an American Flyer electric train set. Some of my friends who came from families that were better off financially already had electric train sets. Almost all of them had Lionel trains. But I never liked Lionel train because they ran on three-rail tracks instead of two-rail tracks like real trains did. That's why I preferred American Flyer trains.
But I knew that I would never be able to have one. We didn't have that kind of money. After all, an American Flyer train set -- including the engine and three cars and a caboose as well as a little circular track on which the train went around and around and around -- cost $17.50. That was a whole lot of money back then and certainly for our family.
I remember hinting to my mother and father about how much I would like to have one of those sets. But they were always firm in saying that Santa had lots and lots of boys and girls to take care of and that he didn't have much money either and wouldn't be able to bring such a train set to us and still take care of the other boys and girls too. So I knew that my brothers and I would not be getting that gift on Christmas Day, but oh how nice it would be.
To this day, I can remember the burst of tears that came into my eyes on Christmas morning that year when I crept into our tiny living room and there was that American Flyer train set right there on the floor! My tears were so many and so big that I couldn't see. I had to wipe them away with my little hands just to make sure that it really was an American Flyer and that I wasn't just dreaming. But it was true -- wonderfully and unbelievably true -- and I simply couldn't contain my joy.
I ran to where my two brothers were asleep. I shook them and shook them and shook them and said, "Get up! Get up! You're not going to believe this! We got a train set! An American Flyer! Come on and see for yourselves!"
How did it happen? My mom and dad were not able to buy it. And all the things they had told us about Santa having limited funds were spoken in good faith. They didn't think there was any way that we would be able to have our deepest dream and wish. But my Aunt Woody was dating a man at that time who didn't have any children of his own. And when he found out how much we wanted an American Flyer train set, he decided that he would buy it for us and help us have a wonderful Christmas.
I don't even remember the guy's name. He and my aunt Woody broke up some time after that. I remember that it almost broke her heart to pieces but, to this day, I still remember that fellow -- nameless though he remains and somewhat faceless in my memory too -- that I am so thankful to him for what he did for my two brothers and me.
I'll bet that somewhere in your past you have a memory like that too. A happy memory. A beautiful memory. Something that came to you as a total and complete surprise and filled your heart with joy. And I suppose the reason all of us hang onto memories, even if they are very few in number, is because they break open for the very heart of Christmas.
Christmas is about surprises, isn't it? Wonderful surprises and happy surprises. Surprises that are so awesome that they come out of the unbelievable -- not just the unexpectable, but the unbelievable -- and actually happen right before our eyes. We want it for our own children, too, don't we? And we want it for little children everywhere, wherever and whomever they might be. It really is the heart and core of the spirit of Christmas.
And isn't that exactly what happened on that first Christmas? Think about it. The whole idea of God -- the awesome one and the mighty one who created the whole universe, the Sovereign Lord whose voice boomed like thunder and whose eyes flashed like lightning, the one who could shake the foundations of the earth and cause the seas to roar -- this God coming to us as a tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It's almost too much to believe, isn't it? Too good to be true. God, the unapproachable one, now being utterly approachable and accessible! God, the awesome and powerful and mighty one, now being the tender and gentle and loving one. And yet, that's exactly what the humble shepherds were able to see on that first Christmas long years ago.
So I guess it's true: Christmas is about surprises, God's surprises, wonderful and happy surprises for everyone. They might not cost a lot of money. So much of the time they don't even cost a red cent. But they lay before us in incredible joy -- and we know that somehow that joy has its deepest roots in the Lord -- and my hope and prayer for this Christmas is that one of those kind of surprises shows up in your life, too. Maybe even on Christmas morning.
-- The Rev. Norman Neaves
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