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The Real Meaning of Christmas

Ruth Stafford Peale explores the meaning behind all those Christmas distractions.

Guideposts founder Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale

In the early years of my marriage, my husband, Norman, and I used to marvel at the frenetic atmosphere that inevitably took over our house as the holidays approached, no matter how I tried to keep organized and ahead of things.

Of course, with Norman working hard as a minister and the publisher of a fledgling magazine, and me with three children to look after while serving on nonprofit boards and juggling church activities, it wasn’t surprising that the holidays were hurried and chaotic. I imagined that when the two of us were older and the kids were grown, things would be different. Christmas would transform into a time of tranquillity and reflection.

But Norman’s preaching schedule and the little magazine he’d started grew beyond anything we could have imagined. In the weeks before Christmas, Norman would often speak all over the country. Sometimes I had to do my holiday shopping on the road. Meanwhile, the children grew into teenagers, then adults with children of their own.

One Christmas, Norman and I took our extended family—17 in all—on a Christmas trip to the Holy Land. We visited the places Jesus walked and taught 2,000 years before. We spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Did it all run smoothly? Of course not. But it ended up being a trip that stayed with us as a high point of our lives.

Another year, we got the whole family together for a Christmas trip to Africa. We spent Christmas Eve watching elephants and zebras in their natural habitat, and exchanged gifts around a scraggly brown bush decorated with a few scraps of tinsel and red ribbon.

I turned 96 this year, and though I make a point of being at home on Christmas now, that transformation of the holiday into a quiet, unhurried time of peace and reflection still hasn’t happened. As the day approaches, it never fails that there’s one more gift to buy, a train to catch, or a trip to the grocery store to pick up the item everyone can’t believe someone else didn’t think to buy.

Norman loved to tell a story that originally appeared in Guideposts about a missionary-teacher in Africa who received a beautiful seashell from a student. The boy had gone on foot to a distant section of the African coast to get the shell. “You’ve traveled so far to bring me such a wonderful present,” the missionary told him.

“Oh, teacher,” the boy replied, “long walk part of gift.”

There always seemed to be a moment when holiday preparations would get so crazy and complicated that either Norman or I would feel like throwing up our hands. That’s when one of us would stop and say those words: “Long walk part of gift.” Then we’d get back to whatever we had been doing.

The more the last-minute chores, surprise guests, and just-one-more-gift excursions into town piled up, the more we remembered that what seemed like petty distractions from celebrating the season were really nothing of the sort. They were its very heart.

These days, whether it’s gift shopping on the Internet or having presents sent by overnight delivery, there are all kinds of conveniences around that claim to help make the holidays run more smoothly.

Of course, none of them really does that. No matter how careful the planning or how well mapped-out the schedule, Christmas still means last-minute surprises and complications. And unexpected joys. Getting the perfect shell still takes a long walk. Thank heaven.

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