Erin was only 5 when she helped me with the Christmas gift for her little brother, Pete. Pete's gift was a hobby horse, one of those plastic horses suspended by springs from a metal pole frame.
This particular hobby horse had seen better days. It had been donated to the church nursery long before when discarded by some parents whose child had outgrown it. And now it was being discarded from the church nursery because it was in such sad shape; the paint was almost all worn off, one of the springs was missing, and the frame was badly rusted.
But we were barely making ends meet then, and restoring this hobby horse was a lot cheaper than buying a new one. So I hid the horse in the attic of the church and went up on a Saturday in December to work on it, with an excited Erin at my side. I replaced the spring and used machine oil to remove as much rust as possible. Then, with some enamel paint, I repainted it, turning it into an Appaloosa.
Erin was at my side, first helping scrub it clean, then helping brush on paint. We painted the saddle black with white and red trim. And we used spray paint to put black spots on its white rump.
When we were finished, we stepped back to admire our handiwork. Erin smiled as she imagined how happy her brother would be when he saw his new horse.But she never asked about her own present. She didn't give any hints about what she might want. She seemed to understand that we couldn't afford very much, and appeared content to know her brother would be happy on Christmas Eve.When we returned home from the Christmas Eve children's pageant at church, the gifts were spread out in the living room with the hobby horse in the center. Little Pete ran straight to the horse the moment he came through the door. He was so excited, he rushed to his room to kick off his church shoes and put on his boots and cowboy hat, and then returned to the living room to ride his horse, which he immediately named Dusty. We could hardly get him to break away for his other gifts. Erin was almost as delighted as Pete, just watching him react as she hoped he would.
But what Erin hadn't known was that another gift was also hidden in the church attic in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It was also a rescued castoff -- a bicycle. I went up on another Saturday in December to clean it and paint it pink and install new training wheels and hand grips. And on the chain guard I painted "Erin."She had been anticipating Pete's reaction so long, it didn't seem to register at first that this bicycle was hers. And even after she did, she seemed more excited about Pete's gift than she did with her own. It wasn't that she wasn't grateful, it was just that she had already learned the pleasure of bringing joy to others, in this case her baby brother who was as deliriously happy about a plastic horse as he would have been with a real, live breathing pony. Erin also learned that the anticipation of bringing joy to others is more exciting than the anticipation of receiving gifts for herself.
This year, as my youngest son is asking for jobs to do so he can earn money for Christmas gifts, I realize I am blessed with five children who are generous and thoughtful and know the joy of giving. And though they may fight over who's taking up more room in the back seat or who hit whom first, their love for one another is deep and abiding.We'll be back at the children's pageant this Christmas Eve. My kids will again be filled with anticipation of the reaction their siblings will have to their gifts after we return home, but they won't mind taking time first to help tell the story of the Child whose birth came with anticipation of His death and of His resurrection and of His ascension to glory, which won for us the final gift -- eternal life.