The Last Gift

by | May 23, 2020 | Forgiveness, Gifts

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, Christmastime.

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 both layers.

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 chap.

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 lucky 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 Boxing Day.

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 pronounce.

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 on.”

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 you.”

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. Grandpa 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.

I 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 everything. Forever.

“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 tight.

“Hey, Tim!” I yelled. “Merry Christmas!”

And I wondered just for a moment if I should ask permission or forgiveness.

Callaway, Phil. Who Put My Life on Fast-Forward? Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2002, p. 169-172.


The Last Gift