Historians say that we can thank the Victorian period for catapulting Santa and his sack of toys into stardom. It was during this time that “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in 1823. Later, in 1837, Clement Moore was given credit as the author, having renamed the poem, “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Cue Santa coming down the chimney, and the holidays have never been the same again.
But prior to the 19th century, gift-giving was done on Epiphany, Jan. 6, the day which remembers when the Magi presented their gifts to Jesus. I’ve always joked with my family that I was going to revive the tradition of exchanging gifts on Jan. 6 for two reasons: (1) December is a busy month for pastors, and I never have time to shop; and (2) I can take advantage of all the merchandise marked “50% off” on Dec. 26. This year, though, I am exchanging gifts on Jan. 6 because COVID-19 has meant more people have ordered gifts online, and UPS and FedEx have not been able to keep up with the demand. Many of the gifts ordered are still delayed.
While some might be disappointed by this, I am not. For once again, it seems this pandemic is making us reframe and rethink everything that has been taken granted for too long. And in the reframing and rethinking, something amazing is happening. We are being given the opportunity to experience God’s story of salvation in a new way, with new traditions emerging.
Can you imagine your loved one’s surprise when you give a gift to them during these 12 days of Christmas or even on Jan. 6, rather than the traditional Dec. 25? And can you see how this can be the perfect opportunity to share the story about the Magi with another as you explain why the gift is being given now?
A few years ago, I did this with the church I was serving. I noticed that there was flurry of gift-giving to nursing home residents from November to mid-December. What about after Dec. 25? Isn’t that when many begin feeling the post-holiday letdown? Now imagine if you are in an assisted living home and all of a sudden no one and no treats are showing up? So that year, I suggested to our session and deacons that we keep the gifts flowing throughout January. The children made Epiphany gifts for those in the nursing home. There were smiles of joy and tears of surprise by the residents. The church’s Christmas mitten tree, collecting warm items for children who might not have winter weather gear, soon became the Epiphany tree. The local school was grateful for the items to be given to the children.
Howard Thurman wrote, “There is nothing more exhilarating to the spirit than to be able to minister to the needs of others at the time when a particular need is most acutely felt.” The needs of others continue well after Dec. 25 has come and gone. Perhaps an unexpected gift this day will be the very thing to fill a particular need for someone who is struggling today with hunger or a case of the holiday blues.
Most merciful and caring God, forgive me for being so tied to traditions that I miss what is really important. Open me to new ways of doing things, of serving others, of worshiping you, of being Christ’s hands and feet in this world. Work through me, God. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
What are some Epiphany mission ideas you and/or your church can do this month? How can you keep the candle of love burning brightly?