by Mark Gutman


Some years ago I pastored in a conference where the ministerial director apparently had the wrong date listed for my birthday. Each year I would get a birthday card from him a month early. One year I explained to him that he apparently had marked the wrong date in his calendar, but for my next birthday I again received a card a month early. Good intention, even if wrong date.

Imagine that one year he decided not simply to send a card but to spring a surprise birthday party for me. A month before my birthday (but around the time that he thought was my birthday) he showed up at my house and asked if we could visit a certain church member. Unsuspecting, I took him to visit the member. As we walked through the front door, several of my church members started singing "Happy Birthday," puzzling me until I suddenly put the picture together: my ministerial director was pulling off a surprise for me on what he thought was my birthday. I could live with the incorrect date and appreciate that he was trying to do something nice for me.

But there were some oddities about my birthday party. For instance, after the song (Happy Birthday) ended, nobody spoke to me. The people in the house were all chatting together in twos or threes, but nobody made any attempt to include me in the conversation. Another odd thing: I’m a diabetic, and usually the church members would take that into account at social occasions, but all the food at this party was loaded with sugar and fat, and I couldn’t see any food that looked as if it had been prepared with me in mind. Despite my bewilderment that I was being ignored and that my special needs had not been considered when the food was provided, I was cheered by one thought. I saw several presents over in the corner under a spruce tree, and I realized that I wasn’t going to come away empty or completely ignored.

After the talking and eating had gone on for awhile, leaving me out, I saw a large man in a red suit enter the room and walk over to the pile of presents. I braced myself because I knew this would be awkward for me, being singled out and given all these gifts. The man in the red suit picked up a package, looked at a sticker on it, and announced that it was for one of the other folks in the room – not for me. I chided myself for expecting to receive all the presents. That really was a selfish thought, and I mentally conceded that it was a good idea to spread the presents around. But as present after present was handed out, I began to wonder if my name would ever be called to get one of the goodies. As the last package was handed out, I had to face the fact that not one of the gifts had been for me!

So (if this had actually happened) I could reflect on how they were celebrating my birthday – er, what was supposed to be my birthday. Nobody paid any attention to me, nobody thought of me when it came to the food, and nobody gave me any presents.

If you haven’t run ahead of me already, I’ll tell you that this imaginary birthday party actually takes place every year. It has to do with what is usually called Christmas. Never mind that Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25; at least people are paying attention to the fact that he was born. But the conversation related to Christmas doesn’t usually feature Jesus. More likely topics are what food will be eaten, what kind of vacation might be taken, or what kind of entertainment can be enjoyed. Or what we’re going to get. Or, depressingly, what we have to get for someone else. And when it comes to food, instead of providing food that would leave us in a condition to be better able to read about Jesus or talk with him, people tend to load up on what actually leaves them less able and less likely to spend time having anything to do with Jesus.

But then there are presents. Except that presents are generally given to people who will return the favor. (I know – parents give gifts to children, but the gifts often supply what the children would get anyway, simply narrowing down the time in which the items will be presented.) Have you ever gotten a gift from someone to whom you had not given a gift, and had the awful thought, “Oh no, what do I do now?” A similar unpleasant feeling can come from being given a much better gift than you gave to the giver. In other words, gift “giving” is usually more like exchanging, or trading.

How about making Christmas a time for celebrating Jesus’ birth? Not celebrating it the way my birthday was celebrated, but celebrating it the way birthdays are supposed to be celebrated – honoring the person whose birthday is featured. We may not have the right date, but at least we are celebrating the fact that Jesus was born. Instead of leaving him out of all the conversations, though, we could make sure that we take more time to talk with him than usual. (Some people refer to talking to him as “prayer.”) And instead of loading up on food so that we are less likely to be healthy, how about being careful that we don’t overdo the eating or overdo eating the wrong foods?

But giving presents to Jesus? How do we do that? In Matthew 25, Jesus tells of surprised people who are being praised for helping him out, and they ask, “When did we do that?” They are told that when they were helping “the least,” they were helping him, and providing food and clothes and companionship for people who need them. Nowadays, of course, we can take care of that by giving to the local community service center, which tends to keep us at a “safe” distance from the folks who need our personal attention as much as they need our money. If we actually mix with those who need our help, we can often do what money passed through tax-deductible channels doesn’t do. If you don’t know needy people, you can ask your pastor or county agencies for suggestions of people you might be able to help.

Christmas is a social holiday, and the Bible nowhere tells us to celebrate it, let alone how. And it would probably cause problems for many if they stayed away from some social events or didn’t exchange gifts. After all, even Jesus went to parties. But we can takes steps to make our Christmas celebration a little more celebration of Jesus’ birthday and a little less of the commercial, overeating, ignoring-the-needy holiday “spirit” that typifies much of the Christmas season. Instead of puzzling the one who was told his birthday is being celebrated, let’s show that we really care about him, helping make us and others healthier and happier.