It was 1975 and Tim was at the awkward age of eleven. He was too old to play with action figures, sleep with teddy bears or believe in Santa Clause but too young to know where his talents lay buried waiting for discovery. He really didn’t know how to be himself since he didn’t know who he was. He seemed to live in the shadow of Todd his brother who though he was only a year and a half older displayed great confidence and won friends easily. Todd taught himself to play the piano and he seemed to effortlessly pour out beautifully melodic pieces at whim. Tim quit the recorder, guitar, harmonica and trumpet when the practice got boring or difficult. Todd could pop wheelies on his bike, jump any ramp, hit home runs and sprint faster than anyone else in the neighborhood. Tim got winded just playing freeze tag for fifteen minutes, still rode his bike with training wheels till he was nine, and usually played way out in left field. Todd drew fantastic superheroes in sweeping motion across large drawing pads. Tim drew stiff little cartoons on scraps of paper when he should have been doing his homework. Todd was an A student and Tim was a C student. So it’s no wonder that in Tim’s eyes and perhaps their mother’s too, Todd was a multitalented and dynamic person. Oh yes, Tim did have interests. For instance he enjoyed finding out how to do magic tricks which he couldn’t perform convincingly. He was good at solving puzzles but he seldom beat Todd at any strategic board game. Now, since their mother was an artist it seemed to Tim that his lack of talent kept him from fitting into the family. It doesn’t matter if it was true it only matters that Tim felt like a misfit almost everywhere he went and with everything he did.
Presently, Tim was entertained by shooting three and a half minute movies with a super-8 camera that belonged to a classmate who was awkward in his own way. This was an expensive hobby. Many times Tim would save his allowance or beg an advance from his mother so he could buy or develop film. Sometimes he even shoveled snow for a neighbor to earn the cash for more film. Tim began to get so involved in this creativity that he forgot about not feeling a part of the family and about not being noticed for being good at anything. The films he shot probably only made sense to him since much of it was imaginary or pretend. But it didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was that he could set up something on camera, shoot it and then days later he could see it enlarged on the wall by a projector that he borrowed from the local library. This is one hobby that didn’t seem to bore him and gave him the occasional excuse to dig out those toys that he was supposed to be too old to play with since they made good characters to animate with stop motion.
Yet on those days when there wasn’t enough money to buy film, when his friend with the camera wasn’t available or when the mood just wasn’t right Tim would get bored and feel sorry for him self. Boredom and self pity make a poor match that motivates people to make irrevocable mistakes. Such was the case only two weeks before Christmas. Tim was home by himself and he knew where his mother hid the Christmas presents. He snuck in the hallway closet and lifted the trap door to the laundry shoot that had long ago been sealed off. Sure enough, through the shadows Tim’s hands groped a present and felt that it was wrapped. Was it meant for him or his brother? He convinced himself that it was probably meant for Todd and that it wouldn’t make a difference if he snuck a peak at it. So he pulled the box out of the cubby hole and delicately pealed back the tape which only slightly pulled off some of the paper design without ripping the paper. He then unfolded the wrapping and the packaging became visible. In the dim and yellowed light of the hallway Tim could make out the word; Sanyo. “Whatever it is”, he thought, “it’s electronic and that means it’s probably for Todd because he always gets the better presents like stereos and boom boxes.” He had to know for sure, what kind of electronic thing this was so Tim unwrapped the gift a little bit further and then he saw it. All at once excitement and fear ran through him at the same time. It was for him! The gift really was for him! There pictured beneath the word Sanyo was an 8mm movie camera and this one recorded sound! For what felt like an hour he gawked at the wondrous trophy that he had stolen at that moment. How did his mother know what to get him when he him self didn’t even know what he wanted? And then other thoughts descended on him from his conscience that he had been far too late in listing to. Oh how in this world was he ever going to keep this secret and how was he ever going to put on a convincing act on Christmas day when his mother hands him the box that he had already opened? With that thought, Tim almost cried but the idea of getting the wrapping paper wet was enough to keep the tears from falling on it. He sighed heavily all through repairing the wrapping and replacing the gift in that dim little cubby.
Although the gift was now rewrapped and it was again hidden from sight, it was never far from his mind what he had done. Not only had he robbed himself of the joy of opening this gift on Christmas but he had robbed his family of the joy of seeing him open it too. He couldn’t bear to be found out. He didn’t want his thievery known, so he vowed to conjure up just the right mix of drama and surprise to keep his brother and mother from knowing. He rehearsed over and over again until he couldn’t tell what seemed realistic and what was plainly false. Before Tim had skulked around and opened his present he had dreams of Christmas morning with the whole family in their pajamas on the floor around the lighted Christmas tree laughing and playing but now that was all poisoned. Now each day that passed was one day closer to a fate he couldn’t avoid. Every day that came closer to Christmas was a day closer to a morning he would have to fill with lies and deceit. He would have to feign laughter and fake joy and it made him sick to his stomach. Each day Tim wanted to just tell his family what he had done just so he could end the agony of waiting till Christmas to put on an act, an act he just didn’t have the heart for. In fact he lost his heart for Christmas altogether. How he wished he could undo what he had done. How he wished that he could turn back time and get a second chance at saving this surprise. Why did it have to be a movie camera? Why couldn’t it be a puzzle, a book or some socks or something? That, he thought, wouldn’t have been such a big deal. Or why couldn’t it have been for Todd? That would be a secret he could keep. But no, it was too late and he couldn’t turn back. Tim would just have to fake it.
It finally came. Christmas finally arrived and with it dread and a nervous feeling in Tim’s gut where excitement and joy should be. For most of the morning he put on a good act and was suspiciously more pleasant than usual, offering to clean up or get more coffee for his mom. With each present that came his way fear shot through him until he nearly ran out of fear. And then it happened. Todd handed Tim the box. Tim recognized it instantly but tried to play it off with something like, “what’s this another present for me?” “Well open it why don’t you?” Todd recommended. So Tim held his breath which was already at the top of his lungs and ripped at the paper then saw the camera for the first time in plain light. He had forgotten everything he practiced. He couldn’t gasp in awe so the best he could do was exclaim, “Wow! A movie camera.” But it wasn’t at all convincing. As he sat there looking at the box his mother prompted him to open it. Opening it he seemed rather quite, too quite for this kind of gift. He tried to convince himself that they had bought his poor little act but another part of him didn’t want to get away with it anymore. He slowly took the camera and microphone from their packaging while wrestling with his thoughts and feelings. Finally Todd broke the silence, “If you’re not going to say something then I will. You knew about the camera didn’t you?” Tim expected Todd and their mother to be condemning but they weren’t. They could see confused emotions all over Tim’s face so they were very delicate about asking. Then Tim replied, “Yes, it’s true.” And he told them the whole story about how he had peaked and what it made him feel like. He apologized to them and said, “Most of all I feel like I robbed you of something special. Mom, I still can’t figure out how you even knew that I wanted a movie camera when I didn’t even know that myself.” To that Tim’s mother replied, “Oh mothers know a little something about their children. And do you know what else I know Tim? You think you have stolen Christmas from us but you haven’t. We have something else for you.” She went behind the couch and pulled out another bigger box with the same wrapping paper and set it in front of him. Tim tore at the paper and revealed a gift that made him gawk in wonder. He gasped; he pressed his hands to his cheeks shaking his head from side to side like it just wasn’t real. And then he started to weep ever so slightly. There in front of him was a dual recording sound movie projector. They had done it, they had truly surprised him and he received their gift with a kind of humility that was deeper than anything he could have planned. Like the prodigal son, he didn’t deserve any gifts after what he had done and yet they lavished more and more upon him. In his stocking he found stuffed several rolls of film and a book about the special effects of cinema. The more he tried to avoid it, the more Christmas found him, not in the many gifts or their fine quality but in way Todd and their mother gave them. What great joy they received in giving them and in seeing Tim open them!
This is the true meaning of Christmas. It’s not found so much in surprises and secrets, fancy wrapping or fine feasts. To be fair, there are ways of finding Christmas in those things too but here in this story we find the meaning of Christmas in a gift joyfully given in full knowledge of the undeserving. For this is the perfect love of God that while we were still sinners he came to us (cf Romans 5:8). He came in the flesh of our flesh and was born in a dirty, smelly manger of a place and was wrapped in swaddling clothes. He came to us while we were neck deep in the filth of our lies, corruption and deceit. Just as Tim was struggling that day to make some sense of the sublime way his mother and brother had given him things he didn’t deserve… not just material things but more lofty things like love and mercy… just like that, so too does this world struggle to understand the inestimable gift of God himself on Christmas day.
This may seem like a good place to leave this true story that really happened to this author but there is just a tiny bit more to tell because the gift kept on giving long after Todd and Tim’s mother had died. Tim was a young man and wanted to marry Becca but didn’t have the means. Since super-8 equipment was starting to catch the eyes of collectors Tim sold his prized camera and projector for just enough cash to buy a modest engagement ring and Becca and Tim were wed just two days after Christmas. Now, the same joy that his family felt in giving to him, Tim feels each time he sees that ring on Becca’s finger.