Surprise is divine; it’s at the heart of the Christmas story. What could be more surprising than our Savior coming to us simply and quietly in the night as a baby? He spent His first hours in a stable – a stable ‑ warmed by barn animals. He came without fanfare or special wrappings and brought the greatest gifts of all time — hope, peace, joy, and love. The invitation of Christmas is that we keep the gift of surprise, of expectation, in our hearts.
Often as adults we lose the ability to be surprised—even at Christmas. Once we reach a certain age, we tend to lose our sense of wonder and expectation. We’ve been around the block a few times and have faced disappointment more than once. Our hearts grow jaded, and we learn to live without anticipation.
A special Christmas memory is one that delivered the gift of surprise just when I needed it most. It’s an annual rite is to give my kids a book for Christmas. I taught first grade and loved children’s books with a passion. Love You Forever, Goodnight Moon, and The Runaway Bunny were among their earlier gifts. As my brood grew, they made me proud by requesting good reads on their own. Then one day too soon, the book tradition rested solely with me again.
On this particular Christmas, I managed to surprise my three grown kids—a feat harder to accomplish than it used to be—by adding a new twist to what had become a Ho-Hum. Instead of wrapping the books in commercial gift wrap tied with ready-made bows, I’d dropped each in a plain, oatmeal-colored bag with thin rope handles. The unadorned bags invited play, so I pulled out calligraphy markers and decorated them with quotes about reading. The red gingham ribbon tied to the handles added old-fashioned charm. My kids loved them. They needed nothing lavish to surprise them, only a simple tweak to an old idea. The quotes were a big hit:
We read to know we are not alone. C.S. Lewis
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. Groucho Marx
When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I by food and clothes. Erasmus
Never judge a book by its movie. J. W. Eagean
Getting a book from mom is nothing new for my children, but the unusual presentation of the gift was novel and fun. And because I love to surprise as much as be surprised, I felt a little smug that Christmas. Then I forgot all about it.
Imagine my surprise the following year at Christmas when my daughter handed me a familiar bag. It was the one I’d packed her book in last year, still tied with the same, though frayed, gingham ribbon. She’d elegantly scratched through the To and From labels so they read appropriately and then added a new quote:
A man who won’t read has no advantage over the one who can’t read. Mark Twain
(I taught her well, huh?)
I was delighted because the gift of surprise has become a rare commodity. And that this surprise came from a daughter who, since the previous Christmas, had moved four states away made it more special. My gloominess about the distance that separated us lifted instantly. What’s 900 miles when she can still manage to surprise me?
A tradition had been born. The following year, I sent the bag back with another book and an added quote:
Wear the old coat and buy the new book. Austin Phelps
Then the tradition went on hiatus a few years because my daughter moved from Dallas to Los Angeles and didn’t make it home for Christmas. The bag was packed away – somewhere. My daughter couldn’t find it, and I knew I didn’t have it.
I accepted that the traveling book bag tradition had been laid to rest, but I soon discovered this was a gift that kept on giving. During a search of my attic this month for a baby book, I came across the errant book bag.
Guess what surprise is back under my tree this year?