By Rev. Paula Ashby, retired
No one knew how it got there. Everyone pleaded ignorance. But someone had to have left it there.
“Maybe it was Santa,” Dad said with a smile. We don’t know how long it had been there. It was pushed back against the wall behind the Christmas tree, buried beneath the other Christmas presents.
My little sister was the first one to see it that Christmas morning, after we had opened our many presents and during our annual Christmas “paper war” — the torn wrapping paper rolled into paper bombs that we hurled at one another with glee.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing behind the tree. We called a ceasefire and peeked behind the tree. It was another present, the size of a shoebox. It was wrapped in faded brown paper. For a bow, it simply had a dirty old shoelace tied around it.
My little sister reached for it first, but I was bigger and faster. I picked it up and she glared at me. I shook it. Whatever was inside didn’t make any noise. “What is inside it?” she asked.
Everyone took a guess. Mom thought it might be that new pair of shoes she had been dropping hints to dad about getting. But I could tell from the look on dad’s face that he was clueless about any shoes. All of us knew that mom wanted new shoes for Christmas — all of us except dad, that is.
Dad tried to change the subject by saying, “I sure hope it’s not aunt Alma’s fruitcake.” We all groaned. Aunt Alma always fixed her “special” family fruitcake each Christmas. It was horrible.
The one she gave us last year was tossed out in the field behind our house. It was still there the last time I looked. Even the wild animals stayed away from it. Our dog, Bud, who is not exactly what you’d call a picky eater, took one sniff of it and ran under the house. He stayed there for three days. Poor Bud.
Well, I knew that it couldn’t be aunt Alma’s fruitcake. That fruitcake weighed a ton. Whatever was in this unopened gift was very light, not heavy at all.
“Maybe it’s those bedroom slippers I wanted,” grandma said, smiling at dad. Dad was not happy that the topic had come back to shoes.
“I know what it is!” my sister boasted. “What?” we all asked in unison. “It’s a Barbie. Santa knew I wanted one.” She was convinced she had solved the mystery.
“But you already have a Barbie,” I said. “I want another one,” she replied, and went on to explain how she had told Santa that in the letter she wrote to him. I wonder which letter that was, for she must have written a least a dozen. She couldn’t even write. She just drew pictures of the gifts she wanted. Santa had to be pretty smart to figure out what she wanted from those pictures.
“I don’t think this present came from Santa,” I said. “If it did, he sure did a poor job of wrapping it. You’d think that Santa, with all his years of experience, would be a better present wrapper than that. Besides, I think the present is for me. It must be that pack of baseball cards I’ve been wanting, or the new Superman comic.”
“I don’t think so,” my sister replied. “It’s a Barbie, I’m sure of it. But I will let you play with her.”
I tossed a Christmas paper bomb at her head but she ducked. We all stood there looking at the unopened gift resting on my knees.
“Well, there is only one way to find out what’s in there,” Mom said. “Open it.” I slowly slipped the string off the end of the box. The brown paper had no tape on it, and the lid lifted off easily. I took the lid off the box and looked inside.
Inside was more of the brown paper, except it was crumpled up and filled the whole box. I picked it up and felt carefully inside. I could tell that there was something other than paper in there. Slowly I pulled out the crumpled paper.
It had been protecting a piece of wood. Actually, it was not just a piece of wood. It was a wood carving. I took it out for everyone to see.
“That’s lovely,” said mom. “What is it?” asked my sister. “It doesn’t look like a Barbie.”
“I think it’s part of a nativity set,” said mom.
“A what?” asked my sister.
“A nativity set. You know, carvings of the characters in the Christmas story – angels, the wise men, the shepherds, the animals, Mary, Joseph.” Mom took a closer look at the woodcarving in my hand and continued.
“If I am not mistaken, that would be the baby Jesus. But that is the most unusual one I have ever seen. Are there any other pieces in there?”
I looked through all the crumpled paper, but that carving was the only thing in the box.
I took the woodcarving to the centre of the room where the light was better. Sure enough, it was a baby covered with cloths of some kind, all carved in a creamy, polished brown wood.
You could see the baby’s eyes and even the tiny ears. The baby was smiling. His small arms were reaching up to me. The infant rested in what at first looked like a small cup. But it wasn’t a cup at all. It was in the shape of a heart. The sides of the heart curled up around the infant as if cradling him.
“Whoever did this is a real artist,” grandma said. “I have never seen anything like it, it’s beautiful.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing else in that old box?” my sister asked. She was still hoping for a new Barbie.
I looked again inside the box. There was something else in there and I had almost missed it. At the bottom of the box was a piece of old paper with ragged, almost burnt edges. It was a handwritten letter. The ink, though faded, was still clear enough to read. It said:
“The Unopened Gifts. Inside this old shoebox, you will find the great ‘unopened gift’ of Christmas. I know. It is just a carving I made from olive wood, of the Christ child. But I give it to you to remind you that he is that great unopened gift. Often, he is lost in the busyness of Christmas, buried beneath presents, pushed aside and forgotten. But he is always there. Look at him. He is still reaching up to you, asking to be opened, to be received by you.
Like this box with its brown paper wrapping, he seems plain, nothing special at all. Yet within him is God’s most precious gift. He is the very love of God wrapped up in swaddling cloths. Don’t let the greatest gift of Christmas stay unopened.
But there is still one more unopened gift. This one is inside you. He wants you to open it for him. He wants your heart to be his cradle. Let this ‘heart cradle’ carved from wood remind you, your children, your children’s children and every generation to come, to open your hearts and let him be born there this Christmas and every day. Open the unopened gifts, and Christmas will always truly come to you.”
It wasn’t signed.
When I finished reading the letter, we all looked at the heart cradle again but in a different light now. There were tears in the eyes of my mom, dad and grandma. Even my little sister was unusually silent. I must admit that it was as if something deep inside me, inside all of us, opened up wider that Christmas morning.
After that day, each Christmas, we placed that same old shoebox with the same brown paper tied with the same old shoelace and all its wonderful contents under our Christmas tree. It was always the first gift we opened. Somehow, it changed everything about Christmas.
This happened many years ago. Now I am a grandmother myself and every Christmas Eve, I place this box under our tree so that my grandchildren can find the great unopened gifts of Christmas inside themselves as well.