If you have kids to shop for this season, chances are you’ve been tempted by all the eye candy in the book stores. You know: the story of Christ’s birth, now with new and hard-to-resist illustrations (children’s books are the last acceptable venue for beautiful and representational art it seems); re-tellings of favorite Christmas tales and legends; the annual efforts, many not very successful, to enter a new story into the canon.
Often Christmas books are marred by condescension. (There’s very little childhood in today’s children’s entertainment.) The best stories appeal to adults as well and are a genuine pleasure to read aloud.
One such story is “Christmas Day in the Morning,” a short story Pearl S. Buck originally published in 1955. Harper Collins released it as an illustrated children’s book a few years ago.
The entire yarn is one happy memory of a man in his 60s. Waking at 4:00 am Christmas morning, he recalls with pleasure the Christmas he surprised his hard-working farmer father by doing all his chores for him.
Tales about the “joy of giving” and the hoary “true meaning of Christmas” (which hardly ever is the true meaning, have you noticed?) are plentiful this season, but Buck captures the inner dynamic of joyful gift-giving beautifully.
The man recalls a transformational event the Christmas of his 14th year: the accidental discovery of his father’s love.
Not that the boy doubted; he had forgotten.
Buck paints a picture of routine. We get up, sometimes before light has dawned, and do what we must. Grudgingly, perhaps: usually without much thought at all.
Now and again, however, sudden insight illuminates the inner meaning of what we do, as happens to Buck’s young lad. Overhearing something tender his father says about him to his mom, the boy apprehends in a flash that his father loves him.
In the instant the son understands this, his chores are transformed from a drudgery to be evaded into a blessed means of returning his father’s love. The “nice enough” gift he’s purchased for his father’s Christmas seems poor to him now, and he longs to be able to give something better. He lights upon doing his father’s portion of the Christmas chores.
“He had never milked all alone before, but it seemed almost easy. He kept thinking about his father’s surprise.”
The climax of the story comes on Christmas morning when his father calls him for work the boy knows is already complete. How delicious it is to give what you know will delight the recipient! “He lay still, laughing to himself. In just a few minutes his father would know. His dancing heart was ready to jump from his body.”
I can’t get through the tender exchange of thanks and love between father and son -all portrayed with manly understatement- once the gift is given, without tearing up.
“Christmas Day in the Morning” delights children. For adults, it evokes that moment in their childhood when they discovered the truth of the cliché: it’s better to give than to receive.
More: Buck’s fable reminds us of something St. Thomas Aquinas observed about joy (albeit with scholastic precision). “Joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved existed and endures in it.” Joy is, in other words, an effect of love –of the virtue of charity.
The joy of the Christmas season is not “giving” as such. It lies in the fact that each year at this time, the coming of the Christ child reminds us all at once, as if for the first time, that the Father loves us. He loves us! It is a simple and tender revelation, but it is one that transforms the dreary routine of existence into a delightful exchange of love between ourselves and the Father.