Beth gathered up her belongings and hopped off the bus. She was loaded down with parcels, but she managed not to drop anything. The ride to school had been agonizingly long. Didn’t the driver realize how special today was? Beth ran up the steps into the ancient redbrick building that was her elementary school and made her way to her classroom. Today was the day of the class Christmas party!
Inside the classroom was magical. A Christmas tree stood in one corner, lit up and decorated with ornaments the children had made. Beneath the tree lay the presents the students had brought for the gift exchange. Pushed to one side of the room, under a row of frosted windows, was a table laid out with all sorts of delicious cookies and candies. The room mothers had gone all out for the occasion, and Beth couldn’t wait for the festivities to begin. She placed her gift under the tree and walked back to the cloakroom to hang up her coat and hat. The room bustled with the excited chatter of the first and second graders.
Beth found her seat and listened attentively as her teacher Mrs. Bryant welcomed the children and laid out the plans for the day. First would be crafts, then games, a special snack, and finally the gift exchange. Beth eyed the gaily wrapped packages under the tree and wondered how she could possibly wait that long. What wonderful treasures were contained within the layers of paper and tape? If Mrs. Bryant was still talking Beth couldn’t hear her. She was transfixed by the sparkling tree and the piles of presents underneath, each package full of limitless possibilities. She was imagining picking each one up and shaking it when she was snapped back to reality by a room mother slapping an angel cut out on her desk. Craft time.
The next several minutes were a blur of glitter and glue. They were making angel tree toppers with photos of themselves for the faces. Wouldn’t their parents love these? So adorable. Beth stole another glance at the gift pile as she crossed craft time off of her mental checklist. Next came games, then snack, then the gift exchange. As the adults arranged the room for a game of musical chairs, some children talked excitedly of Santa, others complained of empty bellies. Even with all of the excitement, the time was passing much too slowly.
Game time. Beth took her seat and listened for the music. Alvin and the Chipmunks. She walked lazily around the circle, barely making it into a chair when the music stopped. She wasn’t so lucky the second time. No matter. She found that while everyone was distracted by the game, if she was very quiet she could slowly inch over to the Christmas tree. She scooted on her bottom until she sat right beside the presents. There were two piles, one for boy gifts, the other for girl gifts. She looked the boys’ gifts over. That one was clearly a football. This one was wrapped in Garfield wrapping paper. Kevin must’ve brought this one. Here was one wrapped in the funny papers. Beth felt sorry for whomever picked that one. She was trying to scoot over to the girls’ pile when she was startled by loud cheering. The game was over, Jennifer had won. The prize was one of those books of Lifesavers candies. Lucky Jennifer. Beth crossed game time off her list and made her way back to her seat for snack time.
The room mothers passed out snacks amidst a cacophony of jabbering children and Christmas music. Beth admired the treats on her plate. Cookies iced to look like snowmen, fluffy white divinity, nutty fudge… There was even a black licorice stick in her kool-aid. She didn’t really like licorice, but it did make her drink more festive. Beth stirred her drink, all the while glancing covertly at the gift piles. She hadn’t gotten to properly investigate the girls’ presents. She licked absently at the icing on her cookie while appraising the gifts. Which one would she pick? That one was too small. That one looked like a monkey had wrapped it. There was her own gift, a fashion doll with long blonde hair and high heels. She knew someone would love that one. There were so many to choose from! How could she possibly know which one was best? She needed to get her hands on them. It wouldn’t be long now…
As the room mothers cleared away the children’s plates and cups, Mrs. Bryant explained the rules of the gift exchange. The children’s names had been placed in a cup. When your name was drawn, you could go and choose a gift from the appropriate pile. You would take the gift back to your seat, and you absolutely WOULD NOT TOUCH IT until all of the gifts had been chosen. Everyone would open their gifts at the same time. Beth waited impatiently as one by one her friends were called upon to choose their presents. Kevin chose the football. Samantha chose the gift Beth had brought. Becky chose the one that looked like a monkey had wrapped it. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Mrs. Bryant pulled Beth’s name from the cup. Yes! Beth walked up the aisle to the tree and gazed upon the bounty underneath. She picked up one and gave it a little squeeze. It felt like a purse. She already had a purse. She put that one down and picked up another. She wrapped her hands around it and felt the contours of the package. This one felt like a pony. She had a collection of ponies at home. As she lay the pony down her eyes fell upon her prize. This was definitely the one. A rectangular package wrapped in pristine white tissue paper, topped off with a curly red ribbon. Beth picked up the present. It was a decent size, and heavy. It felt good in her hands. As she walked back to her seat with her treasure, her friend Kelly waved her down and excitedly mouthed the words, “I brought that one!” This just kept getting better and better…
Beth waited at her desk with her prize, fingering the curly red ribbon, until all of the presents had been chosen and Mrs. Bryant gave them permission to open their gifts. Instantly the room exploded with the joyous sounds of ripping paper and excited squeals of the boys and girls as they opened their cars and motorcycles, their baby dolls and ponies. Beth tore at the wrappings on her gift. Why won’t this stupid ribbon come off already?! Finally, after reducing the paper to shreds, Beth beheld her long awaited treasure…a stack of Little Golden Books about Jesus.
Books? Was this a joke? Beth searched through what was left of the wrapping paper to see if maybe she had missed something, anything. Scratch and sniff stickers, coloring pages, anything. But there was nothing. Nothing but the Jesus books. This couldn’t be happening.
Beth looked around her at all the children enjoying their gifts. The boys racing their cars along the floor, the girls brushing their dolls’ hair. She looked over at Kelly and smiled weakly. Kelly had chosen the purse. The purse had been full of make up. Beth felt the tears stinging her eyes as she looked down at her books. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. She picked up the book on top and stared at it. Her cheeks flushed hot with shame. She was supposed to love Jesus. After all, Christmas was Jesus’ birthday. Great. Not only did she not like her gift, she was going to Hell because of it. She looked over at Kelly again. Kelly was putting on sparkly lip gloss, completely oblivious to the fact that Beth was going to Hell. How could this be? Beth bowed her head and said a solemn prayer of apology to God and Jesus for not liking the gift. She hoped it was enough to save her soul. She then abandoned her gift and went searching for someone to share their toys with her.
Beth learned a very important lesson that day. Don’t be fooled by pretty wrappings, it is indeed what’s inside that counts. And she vowed she would never give a child a book for Christmas. Not ever.