My mother was a child of the Great Depression. Her family was poor, by today’s standards. But she often said, “We did not know we were poor, because almost everyone was poor.” (Conversely, today we do not know we are rich, because almost everyone is rich.) The following account is based on a true incident my mother told us children on occasions when we needed lessons in gratitude. (Names are fictitious.)
It was Christmas time and in the little elementary school, in Jacksonville, Alabama, it was time for the children to draw names for the holiday gift exchange. The Christmas party was just about the favorite day of the whole year. But young Mary was filled with trepidation as the hat came around. How she wanted to drop her name in, so that she could draw a name out on the next round. But she knew there was not enough money at home to buy the food her family needed, much less to buy a gift for a classmate. She knew her mother would not be pleased. She could already hear her rebuke: “Why on earth did you draw a name?…And how on earth do you think you are going to buy a gift?” She knew that she shouldn’t even put her name in the hat. She just would not participate.
But when the hat came back to her desk, everyone was watching. How embarrassed she would be to pass it without dropping her name in the hat. She really, really wanted to play the game with everyone else. And so she quickly wrote her name on the corner of her tablet, tore the little paper scrap off, folded it and dropped it in the hat.
And then she was committed. When the hat came back around, she closed her eyes and reached in the hat and drew a name. She quickly unfolded it and cupped her hands around it as she read the name she had drawn. There it was in the newly-learned cursive hand: “Ruthie Stidwell.”
Ruthie was the richest girl in the class. She wore the prettiest dresses, had the fanciest ribbons in her hair, and she lived in the biggest house in town. And Mary had drawn her name.
Mary pulled the little piece of paper out of her lunch pail that evening in the kitchen and showed her mother the name she had drawn. “What?!…What have you done, Mary? Why you know we haven’t money to buy groceries! You know there is no money for Christmas gifts…not even for each other! Why Mary, what were you thinking?”
Mary’s tears spilled down her cheeks as she walked back to the little bedroom she shared with the rest of the children. What would she do now? How would she ever face those kids when she had no gift to bring? Oh, what would she do?
Overhearing the conversation in the next room was Jim, Mary’s older brother. Jim had been able to find a little work on neighboring farms and he had earned a precious little bit of money. Pulling Mary close to him on her way to bed, he said “Mary, here’s a nickel for Ruthie’s gift.”
This nickel was the gift that Mary would remember for the rest of her life. Nothing was said, at that moment, about love or fraternal protection or providence. But the truth about family was written all over their faces. She knew Jim had spared her from the humiliating scene she had played over and over in her mind. He had rescued her and it made her admire him in a whole new way.
She became more and more excited as the day drew near. When she walked down to the store the next day, she spent a long while just poring over the decision. What would Ruthie love most? What was there in the whole Five and Dime that she could buy for the “five” and not the dime–that Ruthie would love? A ribbon for her hair? A new ball for playing jacks? A package of licorice or horehound candy? Then she saw the perfect gift– a brand new pack of crayons. There were eight colors. The sample box was opened and the crayons were perfectly sharpened. But the shiny green and yellow box that Mary picked up and took to the counter had never been opened. She pulled the nickel from her pocket and the man handed her the crayons in a crisp brown paper bag. Mary had never owned a new box of crayons. How she wanted to hurry home and draw a picture with those crayons! But she did not. She hurried home and wrapped those crayons in brown paper that she cut from the little bag. She tied the package with a little sisal cord she found in the kitchen drawer. Beside the knot she proudly wrote “To Ruthie Stidwell–From Mary Smith. Merry Christmas.”
That night Mary could hardly sleep. She could not wait for Ruthie’s turn to walk up to the little tinseled tree in front of the class and open her present. She wanted to see the look on Ruthie’s face. She knew that Ruthie would love the crayons. Mary was up and ready early the next morning. She had a bounce in her step as she walked to school, carefully guarding the little box in her ragged coat pocket.
At last, the moment came. Mary watched as Mrs. Johnson chose gift after gift from under the tree. She clasped her hands together when she saw Mrs. Johnson pick up the little brown package and call out the words “To Ruthie Stidwell, from Mary Smith.”
Ruthie looked over at Mary as she walked to the front of the room. Mary smiled proudly. Ruthie carefully untied the little package and saw the crayons. Mary leaned forward to see what Ruthie would say.
“CrayonsI” Ruthie scowled. “I don’t want those crayons,” she said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, as she tossed them back on the table. “What would I do with crayons?”
Now, I don’t know if you are like me, but I cry every time I hear this little Christmas story repeated. Sadder than the story of a child who rejects a hard-earned gift from a poor child, is the rejection of the greatest gift ever given. It is the gift from the richest Son who became poor for our sakes. It is the gift that was purchased with the dearest price of any gift ever given. Yet people all around the world today are tossing the greatest gift aside in ingratitude as they proudly say “I don’t need that.”
Have you tossed the gift aside?
“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (II Corinthians 8:9).