The house is greened for Christmas. The tree trimmed (once again “the best tree ever”). Christmas shopping tackled with packages purchased, wrapped and winging their way to family members afar. And now I face the week-before-Christmas with all the last minute preparations – the final Christmas cards to address . . . gifts to wrap . . . goodies to bake . . . Christmas carols sound throughout the house enveloping us in nostalgia for seasons-past and reminding us through message and melody of the Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus. God Incarnate.
I review what has been done and what stills need attention. Even with little creches placed strategically throughout the house, visual recreations of The Event we celebrate, my mind strays and my spirit strains with the annual Advent tension between not-enough and too-much. There are surfaces begging for a candle or wreath. There are people with whom I would like to spend time, savor the season – and the friendship. I have cut out all manner of recipes which I would like to attempt and toast the festivity. Books to read. . . special events to attend. . . programs to watch from the comfort of the home . . .
Nowhere do I feel this tension more strongly than when it comes to gift giving. Nothing seems too much to give the ones we love – the gifts at best only tokens of love. Images from stores and media promise a smile on the faces of loved ones. But . . . what is reasonable? What can we really afford? And what is even good for the recipient? For many of us that question moves from hypothetical to real in faces of children – our children or grandchildren; biological or surrogate – aglow with anticipation. We don’t want to disappoint.
Just Enough is Plenty. The title of this book appealed to me even before I read the first page. This Hanukkah tale brings us into young Malka’s home and family: “They were poor, but not so poor.” Not so poor that they couldn’t share what they had with relatives or even the stranger who knocked on the door. And as Malka saw their diminishing supply stretched to the very limit, her whispered query – “Is there enough?” – was always answered: “Just enough.” Even as supply ran low, Malka comforted herself: “Mama can always make plenty out of just enough.” It is a holiday tale and as such has a happy ending with a visit from the prophet Elijah whose presence, as with the widow and son, blessed them with abundance after they shared their last morsel.
Just enough is plenty. I remember the year that we had just moved into a new home one thousand miles away from all that was familiar – and one month away from my father’s first pay check. We were warned that this would be a “different kind of Christmas,” that we would enjoy our new home and being together as a family. An abstract blessing for a homesick ten-year-old girl and her thirteen-year-old brother! Then, a surprise gift arrived in the mail and with it “an adventure!” We were each given a twenty-dollar bill (a huge sum to us at that time) and told that we were going to the city for the afternoon during which time we would spend our money on three gifts – one for each family member.
What an afternoon! Set free in Marshall Field’s festive department store in Chicago, we were committed to making the most of purchasing what would be one of the three gifts received by each family member. Hilarity reigned as we would run into sibling or parent making secret purchases. Bargains were made as we pooled resources for a “perfect gift” for a parent. Each gift, opened under the tree the following Christmas morning, came with the story of purchase. This now is family legend told over and over again through the years. Just enough is plenty.
Lilias, a century earlier, was concerned about the possible negative effect of their generosity to their Arab neighbors who gathered at their home for classes in reading and trade, and in the process often were recipients of necessities – food, clothing, even shelter. Consistent with her certitude that giving strengthens the giver – indeed, was the antidote to greed – she was ever devising ways to make that possible: providing sewing classes for the women to make “haiks” (an outer garment) for the poor of Central Africa; encouraging the men to take up an offering for the needy of Kabyle and then to deliver it in person – a most uncommon gesture between Arab and Kabyle at that time. Even the children put a coin in the collection basket to send to Amy Carmichael’s orphans in India!
Elizabeth Elliot remembers the depression years when a “tramp” was almost a daily visitor at their door given the hardness of the time. Her mother would walk over to the fireplace mantle and take from a jar some coins to give the needy person. “I never knew that we were poor because we always had something to give away.” Just enough is plenty.
Christmas is a time of giving. And receiving. I confess, I love both: to consider another person and try to think what would please them and how to present it in a special way; to open a wrapped present, take it from its tissue in the suspense of not knowing – then giving it a special place in my home and in my heart as a reminder of the giver. The tradition of gift giving was initiated, I believe, by the example of the wise men who brought their gifts to the Baby Jesus. And, perhaps, to commemorate the greatest gift ever given: the Son of God in human form. Come to walk among us. Emmanuel: God with us. Come with a purpose: to lay down His Life, once and for all, for us , . . in place of us . . .
But the challenge, as for any tradition, is to keep in sight the meaning behind the gesture. So let us give gladly and receive gratefully. Let us savor the music, the stories, the food, the relationships, the traditions – all potential pointers to the deeper meaning underlying the outward celebration. (Just a glimpse of the simplicity of people and setting God choose for the birth announcement and delivery of Jesus should say it all!) And remember: Just enough is plenty!