My family on my father's side had an unusual tradition.
Many years at Christmas we would travel to my grandparent's house in Alabama on December 23. We would be there for Christmas Eve day and then head back home that night. My father was the oldest of seven children, so I had a LOT of uncles, aunts and cousins on that side of the family, most of whom lived nearby. On December 24, whenever one of the family would arrive at my grandparent's house, they would come through the door saying, "Christmas Eve gift!"
I remember wondering why they said that. Sometimes they were carrying gifts to put under the tree but at least half of the time they had nothing in their hands as they walked through the door and said, "Christmas Eve gift!"
As an adult, I asked one of my uncles about the family custom. He smiled and said that the family had been doing that since my father was a little boy. The meaning behind it was simple, yet profound. The "gift" they referred to was themselves. The gift of being together as a family was, after all, the best gift we could give each other.
Some Christmases when my father was growing up, especially during the Great Depression, that was about the only gift that they had to give each other. But even in the years when there were presents under the tree for all of us, the best gift they gave each other was being together at Christmas. So they recognized that with the tradition of saying "Christmas Eve gift!" as they arrived to share the special day together.
For the life of me, I can't recall a single material gift that I was ever given at my grandparent's house - even though there was always something under the tree for me. Whatever those gifts were - perhaps toys, clothing, or books - they have long since faded from my memory. Yet I can close my eyes and see the faces of my cousins as we talked, laughed and sang together on Christmas Eve. I can vividly remember what it smelled like in my grandmother's kitchen, and the love and patience showered on me by all of my uncles and aunts.
So they were right. The gift that we announced as we came through the door and shouted "Christmas Eve gift!" was the best gift, the most valuable gift, and the gift that has stood the test of time: the gift of time spent with those you love.
As you give presents to those you love this Christmas, keep in mind that the best gift you can give is the gift of yourself. The material things you get and give this year will soon be used up, broken and forgotten. But the gift of love and time invested in your loved ones will be kept and cherished in their hearts - and in yours - for the rest of our lives.
Some say we give gifts at Christmas to carry on the tradition of the Magi who brought gifts to Jesus. But when we give the gift of ourselves, we are truly being like the One whose birth we celebrate. The one who loves us and gave Himself for us so that we could spend eternity together with Him.
Christmas Eve gift!