The older I get, the more I'm convinced
that memory and smell are linked. I close my eyes and I can almost
smell Christmas. Sugar cookies baking. The turkey sizzling. I love
the taste of Christmas. Mixed nuts. Mandarin oranges. Fresh dirt
from one of my brother Tim's incoming snowballs. Ah,
When I was a child of eight or nine and
Christmas was barely a week away, I sinned greatly. I sneaked into
Grandpa's room, listened to him snore, then reached out and stole an
entire box of chocolates, locking myself in the bathroom and eating
I can still taste those chocolates. I can still
feel that strap. Few sins were worth the spankings. This one came
close. It made me wonder if sometimes you're almost better off
asking for forgiveness than permission.
Each December morning
my sister and I would sit on a living room heat register inches from
the Christmas tree, coveting toys from the Sears catalog. On the
wall behind our heads, white frost had crept through the openings of
an electrical outlet. Yesterday I'd earned a nickel putting my
tongue on it. But otherwise I was a reasonably bright
The earth was somehow colder in those primitive days.
Snowdrifts were higher. Winter was longer. As we sat on the heat
vent, my sister pointed out certain toys in the catalog. "What do
they do?" She asked. If I didn't know the answer, I made one up.
"This doll's head wobbles side to side," I'd say. "Then it pops
off." My sister was impressed with my knowledge.
One page in
particular held a dream for me. At the top right, just above a
stuffed orange bear, sat a yellow-handled bow with real suction cup
arrows. "If only I could pull the wrapping off one of those," I told
my sister, "my Christmas would be complete."
She shook her
head. "Impossible," she said. "There's no money."
And when I
told my brother, he agreed with my sister. "You kidding?" He
laughed. "After what you did to Grandpa's chocolates? You'll be lu
cky to get a hand-me-down toothbrush."
Deep down I knew he
was right. Deep down I dreaded Christmas. But still I shared the
dream with my dad. "Ten dollars and ninety-nine cents," he winced.
-You want to put us in the Poor House?" I wondered what the Poor
House was like. What would we do there? Would Grandpa still come
visit? Would he bring chocolates?
As December 25 drew near, I
scanned the growing pile beneath the tree. Nothing. A shiny green
package near the back was the right size, but late one night while
everyone else slept, a flashlight informed me that the name tag was
my sister's. In fact, most of them seemed to be hers. I squeezed the
ones that said "Philip." They felt like practical gifts-socks,
deodorant, underwear. Things you don't tell your friends about on
The worst thing about Christmas morning was the
waiting. My parents made us eat breakfast first. Then do the dishes.
And sweep floors. And vacuum carpets. And memorize the Gospel of
Luke. Then Dad prayed for the troops in Vietnam and Korea and
Russia, and missionaries in countries I couldn't
At last the time came. And this year the
disappointment was overwhelming. With only three presents left
beneath the tree, I held in my lap a small Tonka truck, three pairs
of black socks, a shirt with pins in it, and a cowboy poster that
read "When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang
The first remaining gift was a George Beverly Shea
record album for my mom. The second was for Grandpa, a box of
chocolates from my brother and me. The last gift was green and shiny
and just the right size. My sister grinned. And picked it up. Then
the most unexpected thing happened: She turned and handed it to me.
"Open it," she said. "It's yours. Tim put my name on it to fool
Mom wanted me to save the wrapping paper for next year,
but it was already too late. I let out a triumphant "Whoop!" And
danced around the living room, holding the bow and arrow high like
the Stanley Cup. Gra ndpa stopped sampling chocolates and smiled
widely. "It's from all of us," he said. "You be careful with that,
son," said my mother. "He'll be okay," said my dad.
remember only a handful of gifts from my childhood. A Detroit Red
Wings hockey jersey. A Hot Wheels race car set. I remember
ice-skating and carol singing and candle making, and Grandpa's story
of a Baby whose tiny brow was made for thorns; whose blood would one
day cleanse the world.
But it was the last gift that made
Christmas come alive for me.
You see, that bow and arrow
caused me to realize that Christmas is all about grace. A gift I
don't deserve, coming along when I least expect it. Changing
"For to us a child is born, to us a son
is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will
be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).
A child of eight or nine
doesn't think of these things. I only knew at the time that I
couldn't wait to try out the gift. I remember wolfing down turkey,
my mom's special dressing, and pudding so thick YOU could hear it
hit bottom. And I recall tiptoeing after my brother as he headed
down the hallway that afternoon. I locked an arrow in place, took
careful aim, and pulled on the string until it was
"Hey, Tim!" I yelled. "Merry Christmas!"
wondered just for a moment if I should ask permission or
Callaway, Phil. Who Put My Life on
Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2002, p.