The Wondrous Gift is Given

One of the important, and sweet, transitions in life is learning the truth that it is better to give than to receive. It is important, sweet, happy and much more joyful to give than to get: “more blessed” is the way Jesus put it. Earliest Christmas memories are about getting, receiving: childhood anticipation and waiting for Christmas, the almost exquisite impatience. The process began with the arrival of the Sears Wish Book, Sears’ Christmas catalog, months before. It was as huge as a doorstop. The good stuff – the toys – were near the back, I recall. Hours were spent perusing, evaluating, prioritizing, ranking and finally coming up with a list to present to Santa Claus. I always made sure my parents knew about the list as a back-up position. Excitement mounted daily until Christmas Eve arrived. It was the only night of the year I was allowed to stay up past bedtime in order to go to the 11:00pm Candlelight Service at our church. By the time we returned from church and I was finally in bed I was so excited it took a long time to fall asleep.

Christmas morning itself finally arrived. I bounded down the stairs to see the tree lighted, one year a new Lionel Electric Train was chugging around the tracks, my parents waiting for my little brother and me to appear – and the presents, brightly, colorfully wrapped – for me. Receiving was nothing but wonderful.

Then, the transition. If you were fortunate someone showed you. It was my mother who taught me. Sometime before Christmas one year she announced to my brother and me that we were going shopping for a gift for my father. Christmases before that she supervised as I chose blue work handkerchiefs and a package of Gillette razor blades for him and she paid the bill. This was different. We were going to Sellers’ Jewelry Store to look for a pocket watch. Dad was a fireman, later an engineer, for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Every railroader had a watch on a chain carried in a vest pocket. Knowing the exact time is essential for railroaders. My father did not have a watch and we were going to find one for him.

Sellers’ was the finest jewelry store in town. It was on the second floor of a downtown office building and I had never been inside. I recall the rich dark blue carpeting on the stairs as we climbed to the second story. I was surprised when Mr. Sellers himself greeted us. “Why Blanche, how nice to see you. What may I do for you today?” Mr. Sellers was a big man, impeccable in a double-breasted suit and wire framed glasses. I had never been in such a fine place. When mother told him we were looking for a pocket watch for my father he took us to a glass case full of pocket watches and patiently showed us each one. When she found the right one she surprised my brother and me by thanking Mr. Sellers and saying she would have to think a bit before making a decision. That seemed fine with Mr. Sellers and down the carpeted stairway we went out onto the 11th Avenue sidewalk.

We had a conference. She told us that she knew Dad would love that watch but that it was a bit more expensive than she could afford. “Can you contribute anything?” she asked. “That way the watch will be from all three of us.” My five- year-old brother dug in his pocket for the change he had brought along. I don’t remember what his contribution was but it couldn’t have been more than a quarter. I was a helper on a paper route and was independently wealthy. I came up with a one-dollar bill. “You know what, boys? That’s perfect. That will do it. We can go back and buy that watch.”

Up the carpeted stairway we went, marched to the glass case and purchased the watch, took it home, watched mother hide it and waited for Christmas morning to present my father with the new railroader pocket watch.

She must have planned the whole thing. Maybe she even enlisted Mr. Sellers. And in the days before that Christmas I experienced the transition. Excitement about the prospect of surprising Dad with that watch caught up with and slowly surpassed my excited anticipation of what I would receive on Christmas morning.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive” St. Paul reports that Jesus said. And it is. It is also more fun and later deeply joyful. Parents learn as they chose gifts for their children. It is a truth that becomes stronger and more central over the years. There is no joy better the choosing, purchasing and giving your beloved a gift.

The theological meanings of Christmas are profound: Incarnation, the Word made flesh, Immanuel – God with us, the mighty creator of all that is coming into human history so modestly, so quietly, so subtly.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given.

And maybe the simplest but central truth of that wondrous gift, that divine self-giving, is that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive.



  1. Sandy Mathias says:


    Thank YOU for these gifts of words throughout the year.
    They always come at just the right time, to warm our hearts
    and help us to see the ‘good’ in our lives and others.

    Merry Christmas!

  2. beverly schmidt says:

    Sweet and lovely. Perfect for Christmas this year. A gift.

    Sent from my iPad BeverlySchmidt


  3. Barbara Fountain says:

    Your words touched my heart. My father also worked for the PRR and he would always say when asked what he would like for Christmas, ” A golden watch and chain.” He never got that watch which breaks my heart but I know that in heaven he has one and many other precious things.
    Merry Christmas.

  4. Victoria Brander says:

    John, thank you for this gift. Merry Christmas, with love.

  5. Thank you for these beautiful words, so well timed as I pack up what I shall be giving. I love the picture of your independent wealth. You have given me a great gift once again, and I thank you again.

  6. Edith Andrew says:

    What a wonderful story about how you learned “it is better to give than to receive”. It is the motto that I have always tried to live by. Maybe the story of the wisemen bringing gifts to the newborn Christ child started it for me. Thank you for reinforcing this for me.

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