I remember my first Christmas party.
Uncle Tommy, mum’s brother, had brought my siblings and me to his church youth Christmas celebration that morning. “Whoever brings the most kids wins a prize,” he announced as we packed into the bus.
We didn’t win (a huge guy with 15 tiny friends did); but we were happy enough with the games, M&Ms and agar agar.
A lady sitting next to me asked for my name. “You’re 13?” her eyes fluttered excitedly when I told her my age in my softest voice possible. “Join my Bible class! Next week come.”
Next week I didn’t come. In fact I’d completely forgotten about her until two months later when I received her card in the mail on my birthday.
On the outside, it had pink and yellow flowers drenched in glitter; on the inside, she’d written in cursive words: “Hi, how are you? Come back.”
When we were little, my family couldn’t afford birthdays. On the rare occasion when there was extra loose change, mum might boil two eggs for us on birthday mornings.
That year, that sparkling card was all I got. But it made my siblings green with envy and me feeling tall and happy.
More important, it helped me to listen better when a chapel speaker at school shared the Christmas story nine months later. That wasn’t the first time I heard the gospel though it was the only time I paid attention, and eventually received Jesus as my Savior.
Dozens of Christmases have since come and gone.
Having lived in Europe, Africa, India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Korea, I have observed Christmases in numerous climatic conditions, culture, and hairstyles.
I know the magic of a white Christmas with snow boots, scarves, and a sniffing runny nose; I have also sung “Silent Night” to booming Indian drum-beats, bundled up and bulky in six yards of sari.
But whatever the language or location, smell or sound, I have learned that Christmas should be exactly how it came to me 40 years ago.
Not about frantic gift buying (every year I hunt for, wrap and scotch-tape 37 presents for relatives alone), party dresses, and Christmas menus (one year I baked three turkeys; I hadn’t done turkey since).
But taking the trouble to come out of our comfort zone to go out of our way for others, because Jesus took the trouble to come down to earth and go to the cross for us.
It could mean coaxing that young one to church for the first time; asking for the name of that stranger sitting next to us every Sunday; and hunting down a card with pink and yellow flowers drenched in glitter, and sticking it in the mailbox so that we can tell that someone we haven’t seen for while:
“Hi, how are you? Come back.”