As the interim Praise Team Leader at my church, December 24th found me playing guitar for our “family friendly” Christmas Eve service (the first of three that night). I also had a moment when I wondered if the other two services were less family friendly, had a two drink minimum, and featured a comic who started his routine with, “Two Jews walk into an inn…”
But I digress.
It was all very nice. We had shepherds and wise men in the requisite bathrobes, angels, Mary, Joseph, a real baby, candles, and we sang traditional Christmas carols. All to celebrate the most famous birth in history. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Christmas Eve services are my favorite.
But I missed Santa and the paper bags.
A lot of people don’t know about Santa Claus and the paper bags. Then again, not everybody grew up poor.
When I was a little boy, Christmas programs at the church were a little different than they are today. Oh sure, we acted out the nativity story in all its bathrobed glory and heralded the birth of the savior of the world with a plastic baby doll (often with a light bulb strategically hidden in the manger so we would know this was no ordinary baby). We would gather in the sanctuary, listen as the scriptures were read, watch as the holy procession came out mostly on cue, giggle as a shepherd or two picked their noses, and see an angel’s underwear when she got bored and pulled the hem of her angel dress up over her head.
And Santa had a sack full of paper bags, all of which contained the most amazing Christmas treasures imaginable. Each small paper bag had an apple, an orange, lots of nuts (Brazil nuts, almonds, hickory nuts, and pecans), candy (Mary Janes, assorted hard candy, and a box of candy cigarettes), and a toy (a 25¢ cap pistol and a box of caps for the boys and a tiny plastic troll doll with frizzy hair for the girls). After we climbed on Santa’s knee and told him that we essentially wanted everything in the back half of the Sears catalog, he Ho Ho Hoed his way down the aisle and passed out the bags.
Back then those bags represented a special Christmas treat before his big appearance a few nights later. Today, with the perspective of half a century lived since those days, those bags represent something much more magical.
They represent the sacrifice of farmers, plant workers, bread truck drivers, and little old ladies (my grandmother included) who took in sewing to make a little extra money, all so a handful of children who most certainly wouldn’t be getting everything on their Christmas lists, would have a special Christmas treat. Those bags came from adults who didn’t have much in the way of money, but were wealthier than any billionaire in matters of the heart.
No, the piano wasn’t in tune, and yes, the pageant was less than perfect (then again, not having been at the original nativity scene, I can’t say for fact that no angels showed the assembled crowd their pink bloomers and no shepherds farted on a plastic sheep then rolled on the floor laughing while his mother prayed for the floor to open up and swallow her whole). But in those bags from a pillow-stuffed Santa who smelled suspiciously of Dutch Masters cigars, was a gift equal to the finest gold, frankincense, and myrrh. For in those simple offerings of nuts, candy, and trinkets was a massive sacrifice of love.
As I go back in time and look through the window of a small white clapboard church out in the country, I still get a true sense of the meaning of Christmas. The true spirit of giving.
And don’t get me wrong. We had a meaningful service in the here and now.
But I missed those bags.