It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I was alone in the large office building where I was General Director. Every staff member had left already, but I’d stayed late to clear my in-tray before the holiday break. And now I was on my knees.
I’d realised some documents had to be shredded. That was straightforward. We had a large capacity shredder which I’d used many times. I switched it on, and dropped a few sheets into the slot. The shredder immediately cut out. I tried again, and again it stopped. I noticed a small light had illuminated – apparently the bag which caught the shreddings was full. Really? That shouldn’t happen, but someone had wanted a quick exit and cleared off without replacing the shredder bag.
But all I had to do was switch the full bag with an empty bag. Easy. Well, easy if you know where the replacement bags are kept. Which I didn’t. I searched every cupboard within any sensible distance from the shredder. No bags. I moved my search further out, and finally, 20 minutes after starting, I found a roll of large black bags. I pulled one from the roll, opened up the shredder, dragged out the vastly over-filled bag, attached the new one, inserted my documents and they were instantly annihilated. All was well.
All was not well because it’s impossible to slide clear an overfull bag of shreddings without spilling some of its contents. Tiny slivers of paper were scattered across the office carpet. If I left them there the cleaners would be unjustly blamed for not doing their job. So a new search began, this time for a vacuum cleaner or brush to sweep up the shreddings. I knew the cupboard where such things were kept, pulled on the door, but those cleaners guarded their equipment carefully. The cupboard was locked. Though I had many keys to the building, no-one had thought I’d ever need one for the brooms and brushes cupboard. Back I went to the shredder. Mary Poppins had not passed through and made all the shreddings disappear. The paper shards were still all over the carpet.
So I got down on my knees, and, with no way to sweep those pieces of paper into a pile, began the laborious, wearying job of picking them up one by one. That took at least 15 minutes. At some point I heard myself say, ‘On Christmas Eve, what other CEO is on his knees picking up pieces of shredded paper?’ Not many. Probably not any.
But that task brought home an important lesson:
Never think yourself too important to do the humblest of tasks
As I’ve thought about Christmas, I realised that down through the years the Christmas season has taught me many simple lessons like that one.
An early childhood memory was that my Dad went to work for half of Christmas Day. His occupation was on the administration side of the Post Office, and with mail being moved around and house deliveries made even on that day, someone had to be at the main office making sure everything went smoothly. That person was my Dad.
To wholly understand why he and many others in Scotland worked on Christmas Day you need some background details:
- Until the Reformation happened in Scotland – in 1560 – Christmas was a recognised religious feast day of the Roman Catholic Church. But when Presbyterianism became dominant, gradually most Catholic festivals disappeared. That included Christmas, and an Act was passed in the Scottish Parliament in 1640 making any observance of Christmas illegal.
- The mid-winter celebrations became transferred to New Year’s Eve – known in Scotland as Hogmanay. That change caused no problem for the religious authorities because Hogmanay was a secular event.
- So, right into the second half of the 20th century Christmas Day was another working day in Scotland. Hence my father went to his office.
Of course, over many years the traditions from down south in England had crept north, and once television had spread and religious fervour diminished, Scots were also celebrating Christmas with trees, lights, presents and parties. Nevertheless, it was only in 1958 that Christmas Day was designated a public holiday in Scotland. (Did that diminish the celebrations of Hogmanay? Absolutely not! Canny Scots just chose to revel at Christmas and New Year, and often to do so with more enthusiasm than wisdom.)
However, remembering that my Dad went off to work on Christmas morning, there is another lesson:
Many people – especially in emergency or caring professions – have to work on Christmas Day, and for that we should be grateful.
Like most small children, my brother Alan and I were always up early on Christmas Day, running through to the room where we’d hung stockings by the fireplace, to see what presents we’d got. There was never much in those long socks – an apple, an orange and perhaps a bar of chocolate and tiny toy car. But we were fortunate because there was more for us. We gazed in awe at the nicely wrapped larger presents laid on the floor.
I never wasted a moment, ripping open the Christmas paper to find the toys or games or clothes inside those boxes. The clothes never excited me, but the games and toys did, and I’d have them all out and be playing with them in very little time.
But my brother Alan had a different temperament, and took great care about opening his presents. He’d examine each parcel, undo the paper neatly, be excited about the contents, and then extract the toy and play with it. All before moving on to his next gift.
His meticulous process meant I was finished and done with my presents when Alan had only just started. I had to watch while he moved through his gifts one at a time. Some years I complained to my Mum that Alan clearly had more presents than I did. She assured me he didn’t. He just enjoyed each one fully before moving to the next.
So, another lesson:
There’s a lot to be said for what is now called ‘delayed (or deferred) gratification’, because many things are better by not being rushed.
I grew up in a home where green vegetables were not a major part of the diet. My Dad grew peas, cabbages and cauliflowers along with root crops and fruit. But we didn’t eat ‘greens’ in any quantity. My Aunt Milla – a nurse who should have maximised health benefits – would put a tiny spoonful of peas alongside meat and potatoes ‘for decoration’.
But, on Christmas Day, we were always given a generous portion of what we called ‘Brussel sprouts’, though the first word probably should be pluralised because of the vegetables’ origin. What are Brussel sprouts? Let me tell you:
- The Brussels sprout is a member of the Gemmifera cultivar group of cabbages (Brassica oleracea), grown for its edible buds. The leaf vegetables are typically 1.5–4.0 cm (0.6–1.6 in) in diameter and resemble miniature cabbages. The Brussels sprout has long been popular in Brussels, Belgium, from which it gained its name.
I did not enjoy eating those edible buds of a cabbage. I simply didn’t like their taste. Some people don’t like broccoli, and I didn’t like Brussel sprouts.
But what was put on my plate had to be eaten. The usual warning was: ‘If you don’t eat your sprouts, you won’t get any dessert’. And since dessert was Christmas pudding, perhaps with cream, the blackmail to swallow those sprouts worked.
I must add that age has improved my taste. My willingness to eat Brussel sprouts gradually moved into the positive column. They are actually very good. But, in my early years, I ate them only because I had to.
So there is another lesson here:
We all have to do things we don’t like or want – that’s life.
Christmas has one form of annoying and unnecessary delayed gratification. It concerns the toy or appliance that won’t work without batteries, but no-one thought to buy them. When I was about seven I got one of those presents – a toy that was exactly what I wanted – but no batteries came with it and there were none in the house. My frustration was expressed loudly. So loudly my Dad set off on foot to find any shop open, but the few doing business didn’t sell batteries. I suffered (but not in silence) for about 24 hours, by which time batteries had been bought.
These days batteries are often packaged with the product, which helps avoid a Christmas crisis. But it’s not good to assume they’ll be included. Nor is it good to buy gloves that fit your hands but not the hands of the person receiving the gift. Or wrong-sized boots. Or a sweater with a dazzling design the recipient will hate. Or a tool they don’t need or want. Or music they’ll never play. Or a ‘Cooking for Beginners’ book for someone who already considers him or herself an expert. Or a dog for someone who likes cats. I even know a case where a few well-off individuals bought a CEO who was retiring a brand new SUV to replace the car he’d driven for years. The gift was amazingly generous, except the retiree whispered to me, ‘The problem is I really, really like my old car. I didn’t want a new car.’
The lesson, then, is this:
When buying presents, do your research and plan ahead.
When we lived in America we adjusted to the custom of eating turkey at Thanksgiving. In the UK turkey is the traditional meal at Christmas. Sometimes we’d travel back to the UK to spend Christmas with family, so we overate with US turkey in late November and overate with UK turkey in late December. Just as well we like turkey.
Many years before, when we lived in north east Scotland, our good friends Malcolm and Tina decided that they would buy us a turkey every Christmas. The only problem was that they never said explicitly that they’d give us a turkey every Christmas. Initially we thought they’d gift us a turkey once or twice, and then move on to give turkeys to other friends. But their turkey-at-Christmas kindness didn’t stop. A few days before each Christmas they’d call round with a turkey.
Then the year came when they didn’t. Not on December 20, or 21, or 22, or 23. By then we’d realised no turkey would be arriving. Alison, happily, had put some turkey in our freezer, so we wouldn’t fail to have our traditional meal. The 24th – Christmas Eve – dawned and Alison and I spent a hectic day preparing food, organising presents, putting final decorations in place, and, as pastor of a large church, I had events to prepare for and attend. In the evening I joined a group singing carols in a local hospital, hurried home and then went out again to lead and preach at our Watchnight Service which started at 11.15 pm and continued into a celebration of Christ’s birth at midnight. Around 12.30 am I headed home. Thankfully the children were all in bed and asleep. Alison was busy preparing various parts of our Christmas Day meal. I hadn’t had a moment to wrap presents, so I settled down to that task. Given my significant lack of expertise, gift wrapping was not a quick process. I finished around 3.00 am. Alison was still occupied in the kitchen, and I had a few more things to do before I could go to bed. At 3.30 am we heard a van arrive in our driveway, our doorbell rang, and it was our friend Malcolm with our turkey. Apparently we were his final delivery and he’d made us last because, as he said: ‘I knew you wouldn’t be in your beds yet!’ No, we weren’t. But it was 3.30 on Christmas morning!! More than a little on the late side to be delivering a turkey for that day’s meal. But we were very grateful, not just for the turkey but for friends like Malcolm and Tina.
So, this time two lessons:
Be generous and kind to all this Christmas.
But, if you can, don’t deliver turkeys at 3.30 in the morning.
This message is posted on Christmas Eve, and comes with my sincere hope that you are able to enjoy a happy Christmas, appreciating the wonderful truth that God sent his Son into this world. And, if possible, I long that you will have good food and friendship to enjoy.
This particular year (2022) the news is filled with stories of severely cold weather across much of the USA and Canada, and of power cuts imposed on the people of Ukraine resulting in much suffering from the cold and shortages throughout this winter. Many others in our world also struggle, so please keep them in your thoughts and prayers, and, if you can, provide support for those in such great need. May 2023 bring many good days for which you can be thankful.
 In the UK there is a magazine called Delayed Gratification, which covers news which is moving out of the headlines. Its slogan is ‘last to breaking news’. https://www.slow-journalism.com/
 From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brussels_sprout
 Including some US Presidents: https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2013/07/13/presidential-broccoli-debate