Yeah, sure, of course I had gotten presents. But it wasn't anything really cool, nothing that I really wanted. Let's see...Some CDs I had already heard a million times via borrowing them from my friends. A scant few, but not nonexistent, action figures from distant relations who didn't realize I was fifteen. A warm new coat from Grandma ... yawn. The regular assortment of candy and junk food that filled the stockings every year and was always gone by evening. One more interesting item had turned up in a gift box for me this year; there was a restaurant not far from our house that I really liked. They served delicious breads and baked goods, so my mom had gotten me some of my favorite foods from there. It was an original and interesting idea, and one of the better gifts of the day, considering, but still, nothing like any of the awesome new video games I had asked for, or anything really cool. I hated to say it, but without them, Christmas almost seemed like just another day.
I sat on the couch and stared at our tree. The multicolored lights illuminated the assortment of various boxes and bags of gifts that had been opened. Outside, snow fell from the sky and accumulated on the ground. But there was nothing to do, nothing really worth doing anyway. As has already been explained, my gifts were lame and I had spent the last few hours since opening gifts squeezing as much possible fun as I could out of them, trying to make the best of the situation. The fun was already gone.
Having already eaten some of my good food for lunch and unable to find anything better to do at the time, I went into my room and lay down on the bed. The lights weren't on, and since I was bored, it created a rather sleepy atmosphere. I tried to tell myself that since I had missed a lot of sleep being excited about Christmas last night and early this morning, I should probably take a nap. I didn't fall asleep at first, but just sat there thinking about all the cool things I could've gotten instead of this junk. After I had mentally regretted the day again and again, I eventually drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke--Wait, let me rephrase that. When I thought I awoke, I really wasn't sure if I was having a dream or if what I saw was really happening. I wasn't in my bed, or in my house for that matter; I wasn't remotely near anything that I had ever called familiar in my life. I sat on the hard ground in some place I didn't know. On second thought, maybe I did know it, but it must have been night because it was so dark I could hardly see. The sky was totally black, except for the stars, one in particular that seemed to shine brighter than the others. Even so, I really couldn't tell where I was. The only logical conclusion was that it was all a dream, but it all looked and felt so real!
I looked down at myself, and to my initial surprise I wasn't wearing my clothes. Instead, I was in some plain, old-fashioned robe or tunic, tied around my waist with a rope. The wind blew by and I felt a chilling breeze, somewhat to my horror. "I've never been able to feel temperature in dreams before.", I verbally noted. "This actually does seem real"
In my scanty tunic and the cold wind at night, the new coat I had gotten seemed like it was a lot better of a gift than I had thought before. I sure wished I had it with me now. And maybe this was coincidence or maybe this was just because of the "dream", but almost as soon as I had thought that I noticed that my thick, heavy coat was sitting on the ground right beside me. How convenient! And next to that, to my even greater surprise, was my take-out box full of all the delicious food I had gotten but hadn't eaten yet. "This sure is weird, dream or not.", I said aloud. "I wonder if any of my other presents are here?" I looked around on the ground to see if I had brought anything else from my world to wherever--or whenever--I was now. Only then, as I was looking, did I see something that made me even more certain it was probably a dream. "A camel!", I exclaimed in surprise and confusion. "Why is there a camel?" And why would there be one if this was real life? Even so, right next to me there stood a brown-furred, one-hump camel, reins and saddle ready. It nudged its head towards me and seemed to want me to get on and ride it. "Look, I don't even know how to ride a camel.", I said, whether to myself or to it I wasn't sure. Besides, where would we go? That was my first thought, but then I felt another cold breeze; even with the jacket I had put on, it was still somewhat chilly. "I have no idea where I am or what is going on.", announced to no one in particular. "But wherever it is, it's getting close to nighttime and I might need a warm place to stay." I looked up at the camel (who was standing over me while I was sitting down). Then I looked at the ground below, and at the camel again.
"This has definitely got to be a dream.", I told myself as I climbed up onto the camel's back, bringing both gifts with me and hoping I could ride it and it would somehow bring me to somewhere I could rest for the night.
Like I said earlier, I know nothing about riding camels, and very little about horses either, for that matter. But I knew enough to know that the reins were some sort of steering device, so I grabbed them in my hands and pulled. "Let's go, camel"
The camel didn't move at all. In the long run, I guess maybe that was best at the time, since I didn't know where I was going anyway. But still, it was frustrating to have climbed onto the camel's back and not be able to go anywhere. I pulled again. "Come on, lets go"
Still nothing. And I still had no idea where to go anyway. In my frustration, I threw my head back and looked up at the sky, thinking everything was hopeless. But then I noticed something, something I had already noticed but hadn't paid much attention to at first. There were stars in the sky, and one of them seemed to shine brighter than all the others. And then--no, that couldn't be. But I looked at it again. And when I looked, I had the strangest feeling that this star was pointing at something, or leading me somewhere. I shrugged. "It's as crazy as everything else here.", I said.
Pulling on the reins once more, I said, "Camel, let's go see where that star is pointing to." The camel obediently started walking in the direction that the star seemed to be guiding. Go figure.
We hadn't been traveling too long when I noticed a small figure in the distance. As the camel kept walking, we got closer to whatever it was and I saw that it was a poor, shriveled man sitting on the ground. He had scraggly, unkempt hair and a beard of the same kind. All he wore was some sort of cloth that covered his entire body, but looked about paper thin. He was hugging himself for warmth and shivering.
When I saw him, I got a strange feeling that I wanted to talk to him. So I had the camel go over (it seemed to be obeying me now) and I spoke to the man. "Excuse me, but haven't you got a place to stay for the night, or at least a warm coat?" The first thing I noticed when I said this was that my words didn't sound like English. They sounded like some other language that I didn't know, maybe Roman or something, but then how would I have spoken and understood them?
The man spoke back, and his words were in the same unfamiliar, but now somehow understandable, language. I translate them here: "No, I am too poor! I have nothing but what you see right here"
I continued trying to talk to him. "But it gets very cold at night! What do you do"
"Whatever I can.", he replied. "Usually just go to sleep and try to make the best of it"
Wow, it must be tough for him, I thought. I was about to go on my way and leave him behind, when he called out to me. "Excuse me, but if it's not too much to ask--" He stopped, apparently not sure how to say what he wanted to. "Yes, what is it?", I asked.
"You appear to be wearing a nice, warm coat of some sort.", he said. "Do you think that I could have it? I'm terribly cold out here"
Whoa, hold on here! This guy was asking me for my coat! But if I gave it to him, then wouldn't I be cold? There's no way-
"Please.", he continued. "I have nothing else"
Hearing that filled me with a strange feeling, and I felt kind of sorry for him. I usually had a warm bed to go to, and even a house to stay in, but he had to stay out here every night! The more I thought about it, the more I began to feel sorry for the poor, destitute man sitting before me, and though I thought I might soon regret it, I slowly brought myself to unzip my jacket and lay it on the ground beside him.
"Here you are.", I said. "I hope it keeps you warm"
His eyes grew wide and his facial expression was a direct reflection of the gratitude I could tell he felt inside. "Thank you!", he cried happily. "Thank you very much"
"Uh, sure.", I replied, still feeling awkward, but wanting to make him feel good too. "Uh, have a nice day." I pulled on the camel's reins and rode away, somehow feeling even warmer than I had with my coat on.
We kept riding on for a while, though I still wasn't sure why. The star above us really did seem to be pointing somewhere, but I had no idea where that was or how I would know when I got there. Still, I had a strange feeling inside that everything would all work together for the good, so I kept on riding with my camel through the increasingly darker night sky.
We had been riding for a little while longer--I didn't have a watch, but I'd guess fifteen or twenty minutes--when I again met up with someone else. This time it wasn't just one person, but a small group of three or four, and while the first man had been sitting on the ground, these were traveling, walking through the night. Since it was getting dark, I thought it would be best to try to take shelter somewhere, and to see if these people knew of any such place I could go to.
"Hello there, travelers!", I called to them. As the camel drew closer I saw that they were a man and a woman, a teenager and a young child, clearly a traveling family. From their clothes and visible condition, I guessed that they were not much better off than the man I had already met.
"Hello, friend!", they replied in the same mysterious language. "You seem to be travelers.", I noted aloud. "Would you know of any place around here I can stay for the night"
The man gestured with his arms in what appeared to be the same direction the star was pointing. "There is an inn not far from here.", he informed me. "It should house you and hold you for the night"
"Thank you.", I politely replied.
I was about to head off again, but the man continued talking. "Yes, you are right. We are traveling.", he said. "This city is our home, or where my wife and I were born, at least. We are returning to her parents' home for the census"
I knew nothing about any census, but so as not to seem out of place, I went along and agreed with everything they said as if it was common knowledge (in whatever time and place I had ended up in, it probably was.
I was still about to leave, but then I noticed something. They were not riding on any sort of creature, but walking. If whatever city they lived in now was far from this one, they could've been traveling for quite some time. Curious and concerned, I pointed this out.
"Yes, we come from far away.", explained the woman. "We don't have much, and this is our best means of travel. We have been traveling on foot for several days"
"Without any food.", the young child piped up, with a stern glance from her parents.
"Without any food?", I repeated, now even more concerned.
"Well, we had food.", said the man. "We've been getting low the past few days, and we don't have much money, but the house is not far. We should be there by tomorrow night...or maybe the next morning"
I didn't want to hear any more. "I have plenty of food!", I quickly told them, grabbing the box of delicious baked edibles I had with me. "Why don't you have some"
The child gasped, the teenager's eyes widened, and both parents looked at me in awe. "But...", they began. "But we couldn't take your food"
Struggling to repress my natural selfishness, I rejected their kind declination. "No, that's okay, I, uh, already ate.", I told them. "Really, I'm not hungry. You can have it"
"But we have no money--", the woman continued.
I shook my head. "No money is needed. This is a gift. From me. To all of you. Please, take it and enjoy"
Slowly, as if he thought it would be dangerous, the man took the box in his hands and opened it up to see an assortment of breads, pastries, and the like. He took one out, bit off a piece, and chewed for a while. Then he exclaimed, "This is delicious"
The others began eating as well, with very similar responses. All of them were overjoyed, and I received more different variations and repetitions of the simple phrase "thank you" than I ever remember having in my life. Once I saw that they were not only satisfied, but happy as well, I and my camel rode off towards the direction of the inn the man had indicated, and, yes, the direction also seemingly indicated by the star.
As I rode, I contemplated all that had happened in such a short amount of time; first the cold man, now the hungry family, each of whom I had helped by giving them what I had. Strange, I thought. Even though I now had less things, I somehow felt better about it. Helping them out had made me feel good inside.
The night grew still darker, and now thing visible in the sky was the bright star, ever pointing onward. But as I soon realized, and to my delight, I wouldn't have to follow it for much longer; the inn was right up ahead. It was a moderately-sized, wooden structure with a main building and then a small stable attached. It appeared that there were many people in the inn, though I couldn't quite tell from outside. I decided that this was my best bet of where to spend the night, so I climbed down off of the camel and walked inside.
Once there, I was greeted by a man who stood in the front room, presumable the innkeeper. He was not entirely friendly about it. "What do you want here, room"
Trying not to be rude back to him, I answered. "Uh, yes, I would like a room to stay...if that's all right"
With a frustrated, overwhelmed look on his face, he threw his hands up in the air. "Too many people, always wanting room to stay! Look, I have no more room here! We're all full"
"But--", I began to protest.
"But nothing!", he interrupted me. "I'll tell you the same thing I told that young couple just a few minutes ago--we have no room"
Couple? A couple had come just a few minutes ago? This was all starting to sound familiar. Why hadn't I realized it before?
"There was a couple just here?", I asked him.
"Yes, a pregnant young woman and her husband.", he answered. "And I'll tell you exactly what I told them: If you want any room at all, you're going to have to go"
"To the stable!", I finished, realizing what was going on. Everything was coming together now.
"Yes, yes, to the stable!", the innkeeper continued. "You want to go outside and spend the night in the stable? Be my guest. Go right ahead"
He didn't have to say any more. Before he had finished that last sentence, I was out of the main building and headed for the stable as fast as I could go. Obviously, it was right around the corner, so I didn't have to run very long. When I got inside, there were lots of animals, expected of a stable. Cattle, horses and donkeys and all kinds of riding creatures stood there. But in the center of the room, apart from all the animals, there was something different. There was a young couple, just like the innkeeper had described, kneeling by the manger. And there, lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling cloth, was a newborn baby. Excited and knowing that I had found the reason I was here, I ran towards him and looked into the manger. The baby's mother was sitting--no, kneeling--right next to the manger. Even though I already knew, I asked her the question. "What's his name"
"Jesus.", she whispered.
Baby Jesus was there, and physically, from the outside, he looked just like most babies do. But when I looked into his face, I knew that he was no ordinary baby. I felt overwhelming emotion welling up inside of me, too ineffable to be expressed in words. I felt a sense of calming peace, a feeling of exuberant joy, and the abundance of grace and mercy. I felt fulfillment, and thankfulness, and contentment with what I had. But most of all, more than anything else, and more than I had ever felt before, I felt love. "He's beautiful.", I managed to whisper. "Thank you.", the girl, who I knew was Mary, replied happily.
I didn't know what else to do. I had no more gifts to give, unless he wanted the camel, but I didn't think Jesus required such things. I knew He was content with the sacrifices I had already made. I soon lost track of time, but for quite a while I just sat there and thought about how good God is and how special this night was, mentally thanking Him over and over. I now knew what I had been told all my life, but I had never really realized until now: Christmas isn't just about getting. I lay in thought for a while, contemplating the beauty and joy and love of what had just transpired. The peaceful, serene mood was tranquilizing, and so was the dark night sky. Somewhere among all my thoughts and prayers, I drifted off into sleep.
When I woke up, I was on my bed again, at home, just like before. Come to think of it, I still wasn't sure if what I had just seen had been a dream or not. But that was okay; I knew that what I saw really had happened, whether I had been there or not, and it was worth remembering.
I learned a lesson that day. While sometimes I wish I had gotten better gifts, I already have the greatest and best gift of all: Jesus. And that's something to be thankful for on Christmas.
With this in mind, I reevaluated the day and realized that I was blessed to have all that I did. These CDs really did have some pretty good songs. And I used to like action figures when I was younger...why not give them another try? I resolved to make the best of everything that I had gotten. But not yet. First, I had something more important to do.
I picked up a Bible, opened it, and started reading. I wanted to know more about the story which I had just seen. I read about the angels rejoicing and praising God. Yes, praise God indeed. So that's what I did.
Thank you, Jesus.