The Gifts We Give
The year was 1861 and it was Christmas Eve.
A small dirty boy, a drummer in an army, huddled at the edge of the trees. Dressed in a shabby tattered uniform, he sat just beyond the firelight, listening to the tales of Christmases long past that the drunken officers regaled each other with. The drummer was fascinated by their grandiose tales and he longed for his own family and their own traditions. He saw them all so clearly in his mind's eye and scrubbed away the tears that found their way down his dirt-streaked face.
None of them were dirty or cold tonight, he thought; father and mother will be dressed as wonderfully as a King and Queen. His young brothers would wear their best shirts and trousers and father might even let one or the other of them where his fine top hat this year. Only, I won't be there to see it, the drummer thought sadly.
His sisters would be wearing their finest white dresses and each one would have a different color sash tied around her waist. He quickly clamping a hand over his mouth when laugher threatened to escape. He remembered how, just last year, his sisters had argued for days about which one would wear what color sash and he had no intention of being caught listening to the officers.
Soon he was lost in his memories again, his war-torn world far away. He remembered how his home would be all decorated, inside and out. He had always considered his home to have the finest decorations in the neighborhood and smiled at the memory of a fistfight with a boy who had dared to say that his own house was more beautifully decorated.
Then, the drummer sighed, suddenly remembering a tradition that was probably being carried out at that very moment. Every Christmas Eve, his family gathered around their Nativity crèche and one child would place the baby Jesus in the manger. It would have been his turn again this year and he wondered who would take his place.
Of all the beauty and splendor that graced his home during the Christmas season, it was the Nativity crèche that had always captivated him. Joseph always stood there, staring proudly at the Child and Mary was kneeling in the hay, her head bowed and her hands clasped in prayer. The shepherds, along with the animals, would be line up around the outside of the stable, as if earnestly waiting their turn to see the Child
The three Kings—they were his favorite—would stand at the very back, having arrived last of all. They were dressed in brilliantly colorful robes, one in rich purple, the second in vivid royal blue, and the third clothed in scarlet. The crèche was always placed on a small table, near a small candelabra and the candlelight made the King's golden crowns glitter. The drummer's eyes well up with tears at their memory—he was missing everything.
As he listened to the drunken conversations, the officers began bragging about the gifts that they had managed to send home to their families and sweethearts, and the gifts that they'd received in return. The drummer knew that he wouldn't receive anything this Christmas. Christmas gifts were hard to come by with a war going on; for a regular soldier to receive something was very rare indeed—and he was only a drummer. He wished that he could afford to send something home, but he was poor; he had nothing to give.
"Shouldn't you be in bed, kid?" a soft voice whispered near his ear. Startled, the drummer jerked his head upward to stare into the face of a kind looking young Private.
"Aw, I was just listening to the stories," the drummer whispered sourly, "What's it to you if I sit here and listen? What are you doing here anyway? There are only officers around this campfire."
"Beg your pardon, sir." The Private said good-naturedly. He gave the drummer a silly salute, then grinned when the drummer scowled. Then he said, "I just came to give the old brass their mail—Christmas cards."
The drummer brightened. "Did I get any mail?" he asked.
"Sorry kid," the Private replied, looking reflective, "I wasn't expecting to find a drummer here—this is strictly officers' mail."
"Figures," the boy scowled, kicking the ground.
The Private laughed softly, ruffling the drummer's hair, only to be kicked in the shins, "Now, come on, kid," he admonished, "Have a little Christmas spirit—I was just having some fun."
"I not a kid!" the drummer scowled.
"You there!" an officer yelled from the fireside, "State your business."
"I'm sorry, sir," the Private stepped into the light, giving a crisp salute, "I'm here with the mail, sir—Christmas cards for you all, from back home."
His words brought out all the good cheer that could be expected from such an announcement and the officers even offered to share what was left of their drinks with him. The Private declined saying that he shouldn't drink while he was on duty and was immediately declared a credit to his army.
"What's your name, private?" a Lieutenant Colonel asked.
"David, sir," the Private replied.
"Well, David, you're a true credit to us—I'm sure you'll rise through the ranks fast—your special, you are!"
"Thank you, sir," David replied, embarrassed by the praise.
"Say, what's that back there in the woods?" a Major asked sharply, suddenly catching sight of the drummer. His hand moved toward his rifle.
"Oh no, sir!" David hurriedly said, "Don't shoot—he's just a kid—our drummer. He's been sitting there listening to your Christmas stories, but he means no harm. I spoke with him just before you saw me."
"He ought to be in bed," the Major growled, "It's getting on toward midnight." Then he yelled at the drummer, "You there, rascal—go to bed—why you little fool, you ought to—"
"I'll see that he gets to bed, Major," David interrupted, "I'm sorry I interrupted, but the kid means no harm."
"You want to play nurse-maid for him?" the Major asked, "Alright, well, get out of here then."
"Yes, sir!" David saluted crisply again, then spun around and hustled back to the drummer. "Come on, kid," he said, grabbing the drummer's arm and hauling him away. "I think you've over stayed your welcome."
The drummer consented to being dragged a little ways, then jerked his arm free. "Oh, I see," he growled, "You get to be Private David the Wonderful and I-I I'm nothing but a rascal –a nobody—needing a nurse-maid!"
"Now, just a minute, kid," David said, taken aback, "Don't you mind that old Major—he didn't mean it like that—listen here, we're all in this great big war with no end in sight and no family around and only rations instead of a goose or a ham and rags instead of decent clothes and—and—well, kid, in this great big ole war, we're all in the same boat—aren't we all nobodies in this great big machine of execution?"
"I didn't even get to send anything home to my family," the drummer complained again, kicking the dirt.
"Me neither, kid," David patted the drummer's shoulder, "Me neither."
"How come your in such a good mood then?" the drummer asked.
"Well, I just keep remembering that my family and friends and myself—and you, if you believe, were all giving a greater gift than we could have ever hoped for when Jesus was born all those years ago—you know what I used to do on Christmas Eve when I was your age, kid?"
"Nope!," the drummer replied, "What's that?"
"Come sit on this log with me, and I'll tell you," David said, patting the seat beside him, "But, mind you, don't laugh—it's not at all funny."
"I won't laugh."
"See," David went on, "When I was your age, my family had the most beautiful Nativity crèche —the figures were made of clay and painted in the most beautiful colors. We were poor, you know, and I thought that the Magi's robes were the most beautiful things that I'd ever seen and they all wore golden crowns."
"I don't get it, what'd you do?" the drummer asked.
"I'm getting to that—I'm getting to it—hold your horses, kid," David replied, giving the drummer a playful swat.
"Well hurry up," the drummer scowled, "Or I'll run back and tell the Major that you never put me to bed!"
David swatted the drummer again, saying, "Listen kid—just listen. I'm setting the story up."
The drummer stared at him quietly, waiting. David continued.
"See, like I said before—we were a poor family, and every year when I heard about the Magi bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, well, it always made me feel pretty unworthy—I knew that I could never give Him that stuff, if I ever met Him."
"Well, anyway," he continued, "I told my mother about it one year and she said that Jesus doesn't expect us to all give Him gold or frankincense or myrrh—she said that all He expects of us is that we give Him our best—whatever we do, we have to give Him our best. So, for a long time afterward I used to sit and stare at our Nativity crèche, imagining what I'd bring if I was there—and, boy, did I ever come up with some great ideas—let's see, one year—"
The drummer burst out laughing. "Why that's the silliest thing—"
David swatted him playfully again, "Hey, what happened to you not laughing?"
"That was before I knew what you did—why, that's the silliest thing I've ever heard." the drummer continued laughing.
"It is not!" David defended himself.
"It is too!"
"It is not—think about it, kid—what would you give the Christ Child if you were standing in front of Him?"
The drummer sobered up in a moment, scowling. "I've got nothing to give the Christ Child," he grumbled, "Why did you have to go and ask me that? I was just laughing at your story—I didn't mean any harm by it."
"Now, come on," David admonished gently, "We've all got something to give the Christ Child—why don't you think it over tonight and tell me in the morning?"
"I don't have anything—I'm a poor boy—just like you said you were." The drummer got up and moved away, suddenly hating the conversation.
David caught his arm, "Just think on it, kid—okay? We've all got something to give."
The drummer tired to pull his arm free, but David held fast, "Just one more thing, kid—just one more thing—see, I'm getting tired of calling you kid—what's your name?"
The boy scowled, then relented. "I'm Thomas," he answered.
Not long afterward, David and Thomas said good night to each other. David's parting words were, "Now, remember, Thomas, don't forget what I said—think on it and tell me in the morning—I'll come find you—so long as we don't have to match on Christmas Day." He laughed as he retreated into the night.
"Bah," Thomas muttered from under his scratchy torn blanket, his drum sitting beside him. He tried to sleep, tried to forget about all the things that he was missing back home, but David's question lingered in his mind. What would he give the Christ Child, if he were given the chance?
"Hey, you there—wake up!" a man's wrinkle-lined, weather-beaten face appeared, and a hand shook Thomas gruffly, "What are you doing, boy?" he said, "Sleeping, are you? I can't imagine how anyone could go on sleeping after what the angels told us—didn't you hear the angels, boy?"
Thomas shoved the stranger away, almost calling for someone to remove the interloper from camp, but his words died before they were born as he stared one way and then the other—where was the army? This isn't where we were camping, he thought. A cold fear stabbed his gut—did they leave without me, he wondered.
"Come on, boy—come on," the old man's voice brought Thomas back, "don't just stand there, boy—our king has been born tonight—our king!"
"What?" Thomas asked, incredulous, He didn't recognize this man, although something was familiar about him—he looked oddly like the shepherds in his family's Nativity crèche. "Look here, you," Thomas snapped, "I don't know what you're talking about—where did everybody go?"
"The old shepherd gave him a quizzical look, "Why they've gone to town to see the new king, boy. I was following along when I found you asleep by the side of the road."
"Wha-" Thomas stammered, "Wha—what town. There isn't a town around here for miles."
"What that, boy?" the old shepherd asked, growing more quizzical, "Say, boy, you don't look blind—don't you see?"
He pointed down the road, continuing,"That's Bethlehem, boy—don't you see it? The angels told us that our king has been born there tonight."
"Bethlehem?" Thomas asked, incredulous, "You don't mean—"
His word died as he looked into the sky and saw the Christmas star shining brightly; it was so beautiful that it took his breath away.
"Come on, boy—we can't be late—our newborn king is waiting!"
The shepherd turned with haste to catch up with his fellows and Thomas instinctively followed, but before he'd taken two steps, he tripped over something and went sprawling to the ground.
"Wha-" he spluttered, rising off his chest and glancing over his shoulder—his drum was there, tipped on its side. "Wha-"he said again, shaking himself. Then his senses returned and he scrambled to his feet, strapping the drum around his waist.
The officers in his camp had told him to never leave his drum unattended, and he wasn't about to disobey, even if he was over eighteen hundred years in the past. That done, he took off down the road at a run, fearful of losing sight of the shepherd and getting lost. They wove their way through the crooked streets and around the throngs of people who were still looking for a place to stay. It was only then that Thomas remembered that the Christ Child had to be born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.
Finally, they came to a small cave and, for a moment, Thomas was taken aback. What a wretched place to put a stable, he thought, but then he saw the star's light streaming down, the cave's ugliness melted from his mind, leaving only room for the beauty that lay within. Thomas followed behind the old shepherd cautiously, suddenly self-conscious about his presence among everyone else.
He came to stand next to a young boy who held a small blanket made of fleece; it was dyed a beautiful shade of dark green. On his other side, a girl held a basket laden with bread. Other people, of all ages, were crowded around wherever a place could be found. Thomas felt all the shabbier in his dirty rags and with no gift for the Child. As he looked on, almost trying to hide, he saw Joseph standing proudly behind Mary, gazing in wonderment at the Child. Mary's head was bowed and her hands clasped in prayer.
Suddenly, a great murmur rose up from behind him and all turned to see the arrival of three magnificently dressed kings, lowering themselves from enormous camels and coming reverently forward to wait at the back of the crowd. The first was dressed in a robe of rich purple, the second wore vivid royal blue, and the third was clothed in scarlet. The light from the star shone down on them, making their golden crowns glitter.
Now, things seemed to begin moving. Each person took their turn stepping forward to give their gifts to the Child. The little boy standing next to Thomas handed Mary his blanket and she tugged it around Him. The little girl set her basket of bread beside the manger and soon many other gifts lay in piles around the Holy Family.
Finally, the three kings came forward. The one wearing rich purple opened a small chest to reveal a heaping mound of gold. He said joyously, "Gold I bring, to crown Him again. King forever—ceasing never. Over us all to reign."
Next came the king wearing vivid royal blue. He opened a small bottle and the sweet smell of frankincense rose into the air. He said reverently, "Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh. Prayer and praising, all men raising; Worship Him, God on high."
Lastly, the king clothed in scarlet came. He moved slowly, as if weighed by grief. He looked at the Child, speaking softly, "Myrrh is mine; it's bitter perfume, breaths a life of gathering gloom. Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb."
Now, it seemed as though all eyes turned to stare at Thomas and the drummer wished that he could crawl into a hole and hide.
"Why-why does everyone stare at me?" he asked, horrified, "What have I done?"
"It is not what you have done, young lad," the king in purple answered, "It is what you have not done—everyone else has laid their gift at the feet of the Child, now it's your turn."
"But-but, I haven't brought anything—I have nothing to give," Thomas answered, aghast.
The king in purple smiled kindly, but shook his head. "We all have a gift to give the Child."
"But you don't understand—I'm just a poor boy!"
"I've seen many here tonight who have less than you, and they have given to Him—and given Him their best too. Come lad, you do have something to give the Child."
Thomas looked around helplessly. What could he give? He honestly didn't have anything—didn't these people understand? Well, that's not quite true, he thought suddenly, I do have my drum—but I can't give Him that! What would the officers think when I get back?
Then an idea came to him. He remembered that he had often been praised for being an excellent drummer. Perhaps he could play a song for the Child. He looked nervously around, unsure if his gift was appropriate. Then, remembering that David had told him that any gift we give Jesus is the right gift if it is our very best, he took a deep breath, gathering his courage, and stepped forward.
"May I play for Him," he asked Mary, "On my drum?"
Mary nodded and Thomas took a deep breath, then began to gently strike a beat.
Par rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum—
When Thomas finished playing, he sighed, contented with his performance. When he stared down at the Child, he could have sworn that He sighed too. Then He smiled at the drummer and his drum.
Not long afterward, the crowd of people began to disperse, each heading back to their own lives. Thomas wondered what he should—he had no way of going back on his own.
"See, what did I tell you?" a voice said from behind him. He whirled around and looked up into the eyes of the King wearing purple.
Thomas looked confused.
"You did have something to give the Child, after all," the King reminded him.
"Yes, I guess I did," Thomas replied.
"Now, there's just one more thing that I must say," the King continued.
"What's that?" Thomas asked.
"You see all the people leaving the presence of the Child—going home, or to work, or wherever their lives take them?"
"Well, you see boy, a good many of these people are quite likely to forget all about tonight."
"But, that's crazy!" Thomas argued, "How could they forget about seeing Him?"
"Well, I admit," the King relented, "It doesn't seem logical, does it? But, you must remember that Humans aren't always logical—and a good many will forget."
"But-"Thomas started to argue, but the King held up his hand.
He said, "Now, I have a suspicion that you're not from around here—of course, that doesn't bother me, I'm not from around here either, and I understand that the town is full of people who aren't residents—what with Caesar Augustus declaring a census be taken, but I've found that sometimes time and distance can make our memories grow dim, and I don't want you to forget this night when you've gone back to wherever you're from."
He held out a golden coin for Thomas to take, "I want you to have this—and every time you look at it, I want you to remember this night and what you saw and what you learned. Will you do that, lad?"
Thomas took the coin, solemnly studying its ancient script. "Yes, sir," he answered, putting the coin into his pocket.
As the reveille call wafted across the camp, Thomas stirred and opened his eyes. The sun had not yet come above the trees and the early morning rays glowed through the woods with such intensity that he blinked and looked away. Then he did a double-take, as everything, yes everything was familiar to him. He was back in his camp, back with the army, back among the people and things that he knew. He sighed with relief, then scrambled to his feet, remembering not to be late for breakfast.
"Hey, Thomas!" David's voice called to him, "See, I told you that I'd come back—the army isn't marching on Christmas Day, and I told you I'd be back—Merry Christmas Thomas! Merry Christmas—did you think on what I said last night?"
"I did better than that!" Thomas enthused, "I played my drum for Him!"
"Wha—" David looked shocked, then burst out laughing, "Oh, what a great idea, Thomas! I've heard that you're a good drummer—oh, that's a great idea."
"No, you don't understand," Thomas said, shocked that David didn't believe his story, "I was really there—I played for Him!"
"Great, Tom!" David said, trying not to laugh, "Come on—before we have to eat our Christmas breakfast cold." He turned and headed away at a jog.
"I did play for Him!" Thomas said, almost sobbing to himself, "I did—I know—"
He looked around him, everything was so familiar—everything was like it was the day before.
"I did play for Him," Thomas repeated softly, confusion beginning to take hold of his brain.
Then, out of frustration, the drummer slapped his leg, his hand striking something hard within his pocket. "Wha-" he muttered. Reaching inside, he dug out a golden coin…and for a few minutes, he stood there, staring at its ancient script.