Back when I was a child most of the local television stations filled the programming hours in the afternoon with old black and white movies usually of the B variety. I never saw many A listers in those films but some of them were surprisingly good and memorable. I grew to have a particular affection for the short Our Gang flicks featuring an adorably talented group of children known as The Little Rascals. I didn’t realize back then that the beloved characters and stories that I watched so eagerly were filmed back in the 1920’s and 30’s. Those kids were long grown up by the time that I was laughing at their antics. They represented life during very hard times for the world and overriding all of their mischief there was always a moral for how to live life to the fullest. Their tales and the lessons they taught were universal enough to the human experience that I still think about how much they influenced me.
For some reason one of the episodes of that long ago time has stuck in my mind throughout my lifetime. It featured a family of children trying desperately to find an extraordinary gift for their mother. The little ones did odd jobs to earn money but even when they put all of their savings together they were still shy of having enough to purchase the kinds of presents that they so desperately wanted to give her. Their prayers appeared to be answered when they encountered a big sale at their local department store. Even though there were limited styles and sizes being offered at the low prices they managed to find an entire outfit of clothing for their mom, including a hat and shoes. It was with great fanfare and joy that they presented their gift of love to her.
The final scene shows the elated mother walking proudly down the street ignoring the gaping stares and whispers as she greets her friends and neighbors with her head held high. The dress from her little ones is quite obviously several sizes too large and hangs dangerously from her shoulders ready to drop to the ground if she does not walk very carefully. The shoes are little better and the hat is quite ridiculous. Still the pride with which she carries herself and the smile on her face insures her children that she is enchanted by the outfit that they worked so hard to buy her. Her selflessness and gratitude radiates and the smiles on the kids’ faces tell a story all its own.
In this season of giving we have at times become all too expectant in our wants and desires. Madison Avenue has somehow convinced us that this should be a time for receiving a new car or very expensive jewelry or electronics. The spaces underneath our Christmas trees are often crammed with gifts that may or may not satisfy us or those to whom we give our offerings. Most of us would be unlikely to demonstrate the kind of appreciation for a misfit gift that the mom in that old production showed to her children. Instead of simply enjoying the thoughts behind the many gifts that we receive we all too often obsess over whatever may have been lacking.
My mother loved visiting friends and family at Christmastime. It was quite fun going from one house to another and viewing the Christmas decorations and presents under the trees. One lady that Mama knew always received professionally wrapped gifts from her husband. They were so lovely that I would have had a difficult time tearing the paper and bows apart to find out what was inside. There always seemed to be mountains of boxes just for her. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if my widowed mom had someone to be so extravagant and thoughtful to her. She had to be satisfied with the small homemade things that my brothers and I gave her but her friend seemed to be feted like a queen. Ironically instead of being happy she complained every single year about how she would no doubt have to take everything back because her man had such poor taste. She insisted that it was a trial for her to even think of opening the presents because she was convinced that she would dislike them all. Somehow it never occurred to her how hard he was trying to please her. The attitude that she proclaimed seemed so wrong to me and I wanted to fuss at her but I was just a child and such lectures would have been wrong. Instead I told myself that I would never ever be so selfish.
A gift is far more than just the item inside a package. It is an outward sign that someone cares and has taken the time and the resources to show love. Regardless of how small, a present should never be taken for granted. Instead we should treasure the idea behind the offering. Someone in the busyness of the day has thought to make us happy. If we consider how powerful such an act is then we realize that it really is the thought that counts.
My father read so many fairytales to me but the one that seemed to resonate the most was about a fisherman who caught a magic flounder. He was granted a wish if he agreed to throw the hapless fish back into the water. Knowing that his wife was saddened by the deplorable condition of the shanty in which they lived he asked that he receive a nice little home. When he returned from work that evening his wife was beaming as she emerged from a small but tidy cabin. When he told her how the miracle had come to pass she frowned and upbraided him for making such a small request. Instead of being satisfied by her improved condition she longed for more.
As luck would have it the fisherman once again caught the magical creature who offered yet another wish. This time he was more specific in requesting a mansion with lots of money to match the splendor of the house. By this time his wife was on to the game and she met him at the door railing that he still had not requested enough. She fretted that he might have done so much better and became ever more unhappy even in the midst of splendor. Of course as the tale proceeds the fisherman catches the fish again and again asking for more and more audacious gifts with each new opportunity. In the end the flounder decides to give the man what he needs rather than what he thinks he should have. The hapless fisherman returns home to find his wife standing in front of the shanty that had originally been their home.
In this season we would all do well to keep our desires within reason and teach our children to do the same. Learning how to appreciate the blessings that we have is crucial to finding the happiness that we all seek. The baby for whom the holiday was named was not a king or a man of power but a humble soul. We would all do well to follow His example and to remember the moral of the story of mankind that is repeated over and over again. It is in giving that we truly receive. It is in loving that we find the greatest joy.