One year at about this time—maybe a week and a half before Christmas—I found the place where my parents were hiding my presents. Up in the attic, in the top cabinet of a discarded armoire, were stuffed most of the presents by brothers and I would get under the tree. This was huge! It was the mother-load! It was the stash I had been dreaming about finding for years. And it was, as you can imagine, the death of my Christmas joy.
On Christmas morning, when I ran into the living room to see what was under the tree, I looked to discover that I already knew what was under the tree. And, once the whole family was awake and we began opening presents, I unwrapped each one to find that I had gotten precisely the thing I already knew I would get. There may have been one or two little things that my mother bought at the last minute that I had not seen up in the attic, but, for the most part, that Christmas was a bust. It’s pretty easy to tell when an eight-year-old isn’t his usual thrilled self on Christmas morning, and my parents asked me what was wrong.
“You didn’t like your presents?”
“No, they’re great. They’re just what I wanted.”
“Then what’s wrong? Why aren’t you happy?”
I didn’t want to tell them what I had done. And I didn’t really need to. I had punished myself. I had learned my lesson.
Christmas is for surprises. Whatever your tradition, the holiday season is meant for surprises.
At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. In that birth, they recognize the fulfillment of many of God’s ancient promises: God’s promise to shepherd his people into a time and place of safety and security, God’s promise to lift up the downtrodden and champion the cause of the oppressed, and God’s promise to comfort those who have suffered for generations. But what sort of fulfillment did God send? God did not send a mighty prince or a military power. God did not show up in a force strong enough to overthrow the enemies of God’s people. Instead, God arrived as a little baby—a fragile, weak, and helpless infant. And that holy child was not born in a palace or near the Jerusalem temple but in a drafty barn. He was attended not by priests and princes but by shepherds and sheep.
Likewise, during Hanukkah, Jews remember another moment when God surprised his people. About 165 before the first Christmas, the Jerusalem temple was in peril. Antiochus, the leader of the Seleucid Empire, had desecrated the temple by stripping it of its Jewish treasures and building in its place an altar to Zeus. He forbade the practice of Judaism, and insisted that pigs be sacrificed in the temple instead—an unabashed affront to the laws and customs of the Jewish people. In response to these unholiest of practices, a revolt arose among the Jewish people. Led by “Judah the Hammer,” and his brothers and their father, the Maccabees overthrew Antiochus and the Seleucid occupation of Jerusalem. After regaining control of the temple, Judah ordered that it be cleansed and rededicated for the worship of Israel’s God. But there was a problem. The lampstand, which held a flame that was never to go out, could only be filled with pure, unfiltered, undefiled olive oil, which took over a week to prepare. They only had enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one night, but, as you know, God has a way of surprising his people, and God made it possible for that one night’s oil to keep the lamp burning for eight nights, until more had been made. And God’s people celebrate the fact that God has the power to show up and surprise us even when we think there is no hope.
You don’t need to be a person of faith to enjoy the surprises of the holidays. Whether it’s opening a present under the tree or being reunited with a loved one who has been stationed overseas or making amends with someone you thought you’d never speak to again, the holidays have the power to surprise us in the most amazing ways. The only danger is approaching this time of year as if everything will happen exactly as we expect it to. This is a magical time of year, and the beauty of this season is its ability to surprise us. Look for surprises this year. Approach the holidays like a little child. Expect the unexpected. Imagine the possibilities. And trust that the best part of this season is its ability to catch us unawares.