My first Christmas as a Christian in 1996 is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was being in the fine fellowship of other believers with whom I attended Bible study. One couple hosted an amazing Christmas party in their home, which was fortified with a hearty dinner and yummy treats for more than 60 attendees. About half of those present were believers and the other half were not. All who were invited to the party came prepared to participate in the “White Elephant” gift exchange.
For me, this was actually my very first exposure to the phenomenon of the “White Elephant” gift exchange. Since our spending limit was to be $10., I felt particularly challenged to be able to obtain a meaningful gift that would make an impact on the recipient and one that they would cherish for a long time to come. Of course, I would later learn that this is not actually the intended goal of White Elephant frivolity. Without this knowledge, I spent a couple of days shopping for just the right gift and in the process had found some wonderful Christmas music at the local Christian Bookstore that I started listening to.
I was totally blown away by one particular CD called Emmanuel: A Musical Celebration of the Life of Christ .
Since music appreciation is one of my most treasured hobbies, I felt like I had found a gold mine in this particular recording. After having listened to it five or six times, I decided to go back to the store and buy a second copy for the White Elephant! I was so excited with my selection for this tremendous gift giving opportunity that when I returned home, I spent an hour putting special care into the wrapping, adding a spectacular bow, and even curling the ribbon so that the carefully chosen gift would scream out – “pick me, pick me!”
Much to my surprise, when we began the White Elephant exchange, I learned that anything shaped like a CD is most certainly NOT a highly desirable choice of participants. Okay, okay, I thought. I can live with the idea that a lot of people would look at a CD and be concerned that the music therein may not reflect their particular tastes. Sure, okay, it made sense. But when one gift after another was selected and mine was sloughed to the side, I started to feel sad. Then, someone even chose another package, also shaped just like the one I had brought, but instead of containing a well-picked recording, instead it ended up being a used copy of Milly Vanilly! Oh my gosh! That tainted the rest of the evening, and from that point forward, my gorgeously wrapped, carefully selected with love, and personally cherished gift was completely ignored by each and everyone present.
Add to this growing sadness my consternation over the whole “stealing” phenomenon that accompanies the traditional White Elephant exchange. This was a perplexing experience to me, a new Christian, to see other believers (with whom I’ve had otherwise kind fellowship), who after seeing their friends open up a very nice gift, were compelled to take it from them in the very next turn! I was quite startled by the whole affair, but felt blessed that I could opt-out of the stealing aspect, since I had the last number. I was relieved that having the last number meant that I could put an end to the whole "stealing" phenomenon for that night. And at least I wouldn’t experience that feeling of loss of having someone steal from me. even after watching everyone reject my gift time after time!
As the gift exchange wound down, I could tell that one of my friends, also a new Christian, was feeling emotions similar to those I was feeling. She had brought a very nice gift – furry slippers – and everyone was fighting over them, wanting to be the one who ended up keeping them. Well, after reaching into the pile to select a random package, she opened it only to find a toilet brush, for cleaning poop! She was visibly grieved. I felt angry as well that someone would be so careless and crass to bring such a vulgar item to gift exchange. I suppose they were trying to be funny. And then I thought about how the item is sort of practical as well, and how I could actually use one for my upstairs bathroom! So I chuckled and went over and sat next to my friend.
Well, the end was near, and the numbers were getting higher and higher, closer and closer to my "number 49" or whatever it was. (if you noticed the difference in the number of people who attended and this number, it is because couples paired up for the gift exchange). I looked at the pile and there was the gift that I brought. When it was my turn to pick, the only gift left was MINE! I couldn’t believe it!
I told everyone, “This is the gift that I brought to give! I already know what it is. And I already have one of my own! I brought it because I liked it so much that I wanted someone else to have it too. But no one wants it.”
Voices from the room chanted, “Steal! Steal! Steal! You can pick from any of these great presents that are still open for the taking.” At first I refused. I thought, there is no way I am stealing from someone here. Then my friend "B" suggested, “Just take one of those gag gifts from someone who doesn't want it, then the other person will get the gift that you brought!”
Ah. The light bulb went off. I thought to myself: I know! I need a crappy toilet bowl brush. And my friend who has it now will love this CD! She is a Music Teacher! I know she’ll love it. Yes, a perfect plan. So, I “stole” the toilet brush and she ended up with gift that I brought. I ended up happy and so did she!
Sometimes when I reflect on this story, I think about how it sort of reminds me of God’s gift to us in Christ. He came to us in an unassuming package, one which we esteemed not at all. He gave His cherished Son for us and we rejected Him. We have envied and stolen from our neighbor to avoid Him. Even worse when we crucified Him, we literally sent the gift back to the giver. Essentially, we said, "No thanks, God, you can have Him back; we got our furry slippers right here, yo. We're good." Then Lord goes further. He says, in effect, here, let me take your filthy rags. You give me your worst, and I will give you my most blessed and cherished gift. By the power regeneration through His Holy Spirit, He reaches down and takes away our junk and sin, then graciously, gently, and lovingly gives us His most beloved possession, His only begotten son, Jesus Christ. If we have received this most precious gift, let us remember that apart from His grace and mercy, we neither deserved nor desired Him. Such is our salvation, pure unmerited mercy and grace from the almighty Himself. Thank you, Jesus!
What a glorious Christmas Gift Exchange we celebrate this Advent in the birth of Christ!