It was Christmas, 1959. Like every previous year, it seemed to this nine year old that the big day would never arrive. Nevertheless, the calendar finally said "December 24", and as soon as Dad arrived home from work, we were ready to head for my grandparents house for our family's regular Christmas rituals. The '55 Buick Special was fully loaded, so after a quick snack, our little family of four hit the road to traverse the 69 crooked miles of State Route 10 to Logan County, West Virginia and granny's house.
The little green two bedroom house on Kimball Street at 5&6 Holden was a warm, welcoming place. The Christmas tree held a place of prominence in the front window of the small living room. It was strung with several strands of red, green, blue, and white lights - the kind of lights where the whole strand would go dark when one of the bulbs burned out. When that happened, Papaw would dutifully retrieve a new bulb from the cabinet and, one by one, he'd check each bulb until he found the culprit, and the lights again began to glow. Christmas cards from Mamaw and Papaw's many friends were taped to all the door facings and covered the inside of the front door as well as the door to the front bedroom. The dining room was decorated for the holiday, and the best Nativity Scene I had ever seen graced the end table beside Papaw's easy chair.
As always, Granny had a full hot meal on the stove when we arrived. Soon Uncle Bob and Aunt Irene would arrive with our Stidham cousins and the family would begin the annual celebration of our favorite holiday. After the meal we would pack the small living room to talk about the reason for the season, and then to open the brightly covered packages piled under the tree.
Our family's tradition was to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, and then on Christmas morning (if we kids had been more nice than naughty) we would wake to find that special gift that Santa had left under the tree sometime during the night. Somehow, Santa always knew that we would not be at our home on Christmas Eve, and he apparently added us to his Logan County route - which Bruce and I deeply appreciated.
That was the year that I had wished for a model train set. I had never received a gift of that magnitude before, but I was sure that Santa would come through. After all, I had written him a letter requesting such. Furthermore, I had also personally told Santa of my wish when Dad had taken us to see him at the annual display in front of Mootz Sunbeam Bakery in Huntington. How could it miss? Santa had always come through before.
We snuggled into our bed that night with great anticipation. There were no visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, but I did listen intently for the sound of reindeer hooves on Mamaw's roof, until finally, sleep came. First light came through the bedroom window and I bounded from the bed and ran full speed to the living room to find what Santa had left. To my great dismay there was no train! The stuff my little brother had requested was there, but in my spot there was a "detective set" consisting of a badge, handcuffs, shoulder holster and a snub nosed .38.
That was it. No train. Just the police gear. I couldn't believe it.
Mom and Dad must have heard us stirring so they came sleepily into the room. "What did you get?" Dad asked. My disappointment must have been obvious. "No train" I said sullenly. He explained that the police stuff was great, and I agreed, but I had asked Santa for a train. "Well, it looks as though Santa wanted you to have a detective set instead" he advised. "We don't always get what we ask for."
True, the police stuff was really great, but Santa knew how much I had wanted that train - how much I "needed" that train. Now we were not spoiled children. Christmas gifts in those days were meager compared to the gifts that kids receive today. But I had my heart set on that train, and now I was disappointed, to say the least. I made my way to the kitchen where Mamaw was putting the turkey into the oven. "I didn't get the train" I told her sadly. There were no tears, but I know she saw the disappointment on my face and heard it in my voice.
She sat me down in one of the chairs at the kitchen table and drew another chair up close and sat down. "Now listen to me" she said very seriously. "It's time for you to be a big boy and understand that we don't always get what we want, and when we want it. Didn't Santa bring you a nice gift?"
"Sure", I replied reluctantly.
"Then be thankful for what you have!" she said with that smile of hers. "Sometimes the bigger blessings come later on."
I was thankful for the police stuff. It really wasn't a bad gift at all. In fact I had a great time the rest of the day, arresting my brother and cousins, and feeling quite a bit like Elliott Ness and the Untouchables, with my shoulder holster and snub nosed .38. The day passed quickly. The family gathered together for a great meal and the enjoyment of all just being together. My Papaw was his happiest when the family was together. (Today I completely understand how he must have felt). The day finally drifted into late afternoon. It was time to head for home. After all, Dad had to be at work early the next morning and the trip in winter took nearly two hours.
Bruce and I played in the back seat of the car for a while, until the early morning wake up began to take it's toll and we drifted off to sleep. Soon Dad's voice cut through our sleep, "Wake up boys, we're back on Gallaher Street." We stirred and stretched and I knew I would have to help carry in some of the Christmas loot that filled the trunk of the car. As I climbed the front steps behind Dad, arms full, I had to wait as he unlocked the front door.
"What's this?" Dad asked.
Curiously, I walked into the living room behind him, muttering, "What's what?" Then I saw it. Under the tree, on a large oval track, was a genuine Lionel Electric Model Train with a C&O locomotive! I didn't know how he did it, but somehow Santa had come through after all. I did notice that Dad was smiling broadly and he seemed to be as just as happy as I - if not happier. Needless to say, there was lots of joy in that little house on that Christmas night. Over the months and years I spent hours playing with my favorite gift ever. In fact, as far as I know, that train set is still in Mom and Dad's attic, packed away in the big box marked, "Lionel".
I learned a lesson that Christmas. The lesson was not "you always get what you ask for". Nor was it that God is some kind of cosmic Santa Claus. But, what I remember (nearly 50 years after the fact) was my Mamaw telling me, "Be thankful for what you have. Sometimes the biggest blessings come later."
As I have grown older, I have learned some other lessons from that experience. You see, I now know that the whole episode had nothing to do with a fat man in a red suit and a long white beard. It was, however, about a father who loved me and sacrificed much to give me a special gift at Christmas. Hasn't God done the same for us on a more magnificent scale? He sacrificed His one and only son in giving us a gift that only He could give.
Furthermore, Dad knew all along what he had planned for me. He saw the big picture when I only saw the immediate situation. How sad he must have been at my selfishness and ingratitude for the "smaller gift" he had given. In a grander sense, our Heavenly Father knows what He has planned for us. How often do we take His gifts for granted? How often do we spiritually sulk and pout when we don't immediately see the "big" things for which we had hoped and even asked? How sad He must be at our selfishness and ingratitude, when "every good and perfect gift comes down" from Him.
Finally, I remember the happiness on Dad's face when he saw the joy in mine. We spent hours together in the living room floor, playing with that train. I didn't consciously think much about it then, but looking back now, I realize how special that "together time" was with my Dad. Our Heavenly Father desires such time with us. That's the beauty of Christianity. Do we have forgiveness and pardon? Yes! Do we have "peace that passes earthly understanding"? Sure do! Do we have "joy unspeakable and full of glory"? Absolutely! But the most important thing that Christianity brings to us is a relationship with the Father.
God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ is the ultimate gift. He has saved us from the Penalty of Sin (past tense). He is presently saving us from the Power of Sin through the gift of the Holy Spirit. One day He will save us from the very Presence of Sin, when He takes us home to be with Him.
As Mamaw said, "Sometimes the bigger blessings come later."