What is your best Christmas memory? Does it involve getting a present you really, really wanted, like the Red Ryder BB Gun Ralphie wants so much in the movie, A Christmas Story? Maybe it was something Santa brought that totally surprised you but turned out to be the greatest present ever. Or perhaps it’s a Christmas memory like the one Betty, one of my hospice patients, shared with me this week. She and her five brothers and sisters grew up during the Depression with their mom and dad in a tiny little house in Morristown, Indiana. She said, “We were poorer than poor.” On top of their struggles, money-wise, her dad drank and when he did, he turned mean, and that caused additional distress for them all. Out of necessity, her mom learned to be the fierce driver of the family, using her iron will to keep her kids out of trouble, enforcing strict rules about chores and school and respect. As the lively and willful middle child, Betty remembers time and again being sent out to the willow tree to pick a switch for her own punishment. And then being sent back out again, when the one she’d chosen wasn’t quite up to her mom’s standard of whipping quality.
Her most wonderful Christmas memory happened on a snowy day right before Christmas in the early 1930s. Her mom had tucked her and her brothers and sisters—including the new baby—under layers of blankets in a sleigh they had borrowed for the afternoon. Then as a family they went sleigh riding through the white and gentle hills of Shelby county. Although the ride was certainly fun, and the countryside beautiful, and she and her siblings were cozy under all the blankets, what makes this her most precious Christmas memory was the transformation of her mom—her hard, strict, overburdened mom—during this special treat. As the sleigh wound through the snow, her mom’s eyes lit up, her face relaxed into a smile she couldn’t quite contain, her hair blew back, tousled by the wind. She looked free, joyful, and happy, and years younger than her tense, frowning countenance usually showed. The memory still warms Betty’s heart and brings tears to her eyes 80 years later.
This to me touches on something tender and profound about what gifts at Christmastime truly mean. Isn’t there a kind of quiet hope inside us as we envision the way someone’s eyes will light up or their face will spread into a smile when they open the gift we’ve given them? Don’t we hope they will feel joy and gladness? Aren’t we leaning forward a bit, hoping their spirits get a boost? Our gift to them—whatever might be inside the box–is visible affirmation of an inward knowing we all share because we know God: Life is good and we are loved. We discover together, as we take turns giving and receiving, that sharing those blessings—wherever, whenever we can–magnifies them exponentially.
So often when we think about the excitement of children at Christmas, we frame it as excitement about what they will get. And while presents certainly are a big part of Christmas morning—and not just for children—I would also offer that there is much more going on in these moments than simply getting things that we want. In Clement C. Moore’s famous 1823 poem, “A Visit from St Nicholas,” we don’t hear anything about the kids looking forward to presents. Instead, the poem says, “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.”
It wasn’t images of brightly wrapped boxes containing presents that the children were dreaming of—it was a sweet taste, a special candy, an extra-special treat that lifts the spirit and brings smiles all around. You may wonder, like I did, what a sugarplum actually is. I discovered that it isn’t really one thing but has been many things over the years—a changeable sweet treat.
For example, in 12th-century Venice, a sugarplum was a chewy candy made with almonds and sugar, similar what we now know as marzipan. In the 15th and 16th centuries, sugarplums were glazed figs with a hard shell coating and they were especially popular in the Middle East. Around George Fox’s time, a 1668 British cookbook described sugarplums as, “small candy in the shape of a ball or disk; a sweetmeat.” And by the 19th century, sugarplums had become almost a candy form of fruitcake, with chopped nuts, dried fruit, ginger, brandy, and more, mixed and formed into little balls and perhaps rolled in confectioner’s sugar.
I think it’s interesting that what the children were dreaming of wasn’t what they would get, in terms of new toys and tokens, but what they would enjoy, the sweetness of life, the specialness of the day, the presence of sharing time with family. God’s love, God’s blessing, mixed with the spice of life, rolled in powdered sugar, and meant to be shared.
Our scripture reading for today is the amazing story of archangel Gabriel appearing to young Mary with miraculous news. It must have been mind-numbing. God was giving her a miraculous gift, one that would change not only her life but lives the world over, forever after. Gabriel tells her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” and proceeds to explain that she will have a son and name him Jesus, and he will be great, called the Song of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of King David.
Mary is a devout Jewish woman and no doubt knew scripture well, and she recognizes the enormity of this news in terms of Jewish tradition and prophecy. “How this can be?” she asks, and Gabriel answers by reassuring her that she’s not alone in this most mysterious of miracles. Her older relative Elizabeth is also carrying a son right now. Gabriel adds, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
And of all Mary’s possible responses to this astounding news—remember Zechariah, last week, asking for a sign?—Mary instinctively receives this gift with grace and thanks. Even though she can’t imagine it, she accepts and believes and trusts. She doesn’t seem to hesitate or worry at all about the huge changes and certain risks this event will bring into her life. She simply and faithfully answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Right after this, the story tells us, Mary “went with haste” to a town in the hill country of Judea. Arriving at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she calls out a greeting. And in response, the child Elizabeth is carrying kicks, or, as scripture indicates, leaps with joy. Elizabeth is immediately filled with the holy spirit and says loudly and prophetically to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” For Elizabeth herself didn’t yet know she, as the mother of John the Baptist, had a major part to play in the future ministry of Jesus. She knew God had granted her the miracle she’d been praying for—a baby after many years of childlessness—but until that moment, she was unaware that God also had a plan for her child. That’s is a gift that God gave to Elizabeth that day, through Mary.
Together their spirits were lifted, their hopes magnified. Together they had that deliciously sweet sense of God’s presence, the sugarplum of knowing that God is working everything out, a good plan is in place, and that as we allow ourselves to accept what God has in store for us, the sweetness and enjoyment of our lives unfolds.
Mary begins to offer a song of praise to God, putting into words the joy and gratitude she feels at being given such a great gift. This passage from Luke 1 verses 46-55 is often called Mary’s Magnificat:
“And Mary said,
my soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This beautiful song of praise is a prayer overflowing with the thankfulness Mary feels, but it is also more than that. Her words echo the prayer of thanksgiving that the prophet Samuel’s mother Hannah prayed when he was born, and it also carries forward images and themes from the book of Isaiah, which foretells a time when God in his mercy will reconcile us to himself, meet all our needs, and blanket our lives with safety and goodness and peace.
One online writer offered that, “The Magnificat is Mary’s, Luke’s and God’s way of informing all who heard it or read it that Jesus is a mighty prophet, that he is the fulfillment of the royal Davidic Kingdom, that he is the Consolation of Israel all rolled into one, and that Israel’s woes are over.” Because of the birth of Jesus. Because God so loved us that he sent his son into our world. What a gift that is! To Mary, to each of us sitting here in this lovely meetinghouse today, and to all beings around the world, across all time.
Perhaps this Christmas, we can really grasp and accept this miracle of God’s tender and profound gift Can’t you just imagine God leaning forward in anticipation, holding the quiet hope that this year, we will let ourselves receive the love and grace, mercy and companionship we’re offered? Maybe like Betty’s mom, we will feel the freedom, joy, and happiness of this journey because God is traveling with us. That is the child’s hope realized–the shared moment, full of God’s sweetness and light—and it’s meant to be shared, through smiles and hugs, acts of kindness, love, caring, and presence. And, yes, presents.
- A Sugarplum Is What You Make of It, Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/1997/12/21/a-sugarplum-is-what-you-make-of-it/
- NT: Luke 1: 26-45
- Catholic Answers, Apologetics. The Magnificat: https://forums.catholic.com/t/the-magnificat/295808