By Tom Lawson
I’m going to have a junky Christmas this year.
No doubt about it. In fact, all across the globe, there will be a lot of junk at Christmas—shiny, sparkly, noisy, pretty, passing junk. Trinkets of plastic, metal, cloth, leather, and gold. Some of it quite expensive. But, in the end, still junk.
One person’s treasure is, after all, another person’s junk. A grown-up’s trinket can be a treasure to a child, or a grown-up’s treasure can be cast aside by a child as a trinket. A loaf of bread is hardly a treasure, unless you are dying of hunger. A golden ring surely is a treasure . . . unless you are dying of hunger.
Peter Minuit knew the difference between trinkets and treasure! He gathered the great leaders before him, Native American chiefs who knew how to hunt and forage and live and survive in a wilderness that Minuit and his Dutch companions still feared. But Minuit knew what would get them.
He opened the chest. Sixty guilders worth of trinkets were spread out before the amazed Indians. Bronze that looked like gold, and bits of shiny glass and buttons and beads.
The chiefs smiled. Foolish white men. To trade land no man could truly own for treasures that would brighten the eyes of their children.
Minuit smiled, to buy the island we would later call Manhattan for a chestload of junk.
Treasures or trinkets—it’s all in the eyes of the beholders. One day men would strip mountains of beauty to relentlessly gouge from it such trinkets. Yellow soft metal you could not eat. Black rock that burned to blacken their skies and kill streams. Even rarer metals, heavier than lead or gold, with which to build weapons that could destroy whole civilizations.
Treasures and trinkets, it’s often hard to tell one from the other—especially at Christmas.
They had come from the mysterious east. Magi. Wise men. Star watchers. Perhaps from the great courts of Persia or beyond. And they came to Bethlehem bearing great treasures. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.
It is strange, isn’t it, to think of such men as these carrying such gifts to a little village near Jerusalem? Like a silk purse showing up in a group of sow’s ears. World-class scholars making their way through the rundown houses of a rundown little town—looking for a misplaced King. But, there they were. And, if you can believe it, carrying gold and frankincense and myrrh.
And, in a little apartment in the low-rent district of a town that didn’t have a high-rent district, they found the King of the Jews in a simple child. And they laid before this little boy all the treasures they had brought.
How strange. To give such gifts to such a child. This child born in a barn—and now they brought him gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Such worthless junk—mere gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why, don’t you Magi know this child had carved out the mountains and laid in them countless tons of still undiscovered veins of gold, silver, and platinum? He had been there, active and working, when the first plants had reached up from the ground to greet the sun. He had walked among the stars and scattered across the universe the distant galaxies. He knew in intimate detail a thousand billion worlds. This child holds deed and title to all that was, is, and ever will be.
And now, these Magi come lay before him a few ounces of gold and some portions of the rare gum of plants. What junk. Such empty trinkets.
At least, they were for such a child as this.
But, when you think about it, trinkets are all we ever can give.
Shiny cars that are all too soon forgotten rusty relics. Toys that break. Electronics that fizzle. Flowers that fall and cards that fade. Even those rings of gold holding those cut pieces of crystallized carbon will one day be forgotten and consumed in the mighty fire at the end of the age.
Each Christmas we hear the same litany of complaints. Giving junk on Jesus’ birthday! Yet, the tradition began long ago with Magi who came to Bethlehem thinking they were bringing great treasures, but found themselves offering trinkets instead. Like the Indians sitting across from Minuit, we are all dazzled by the shiny toys of a passing universe.
And yet, there is an important point to remember.
The child did not scoff at the foolish gifts. The young virgin did not cast the strangers out with a scolding lecture about the commercialization of eternal values with worldly wealth. No indeed.
Instead, it seems the gifts were received as something greater than their mere physical properties. They had become symbols of adoration, gratitude, and love. In that, they were trinkets that became treasure because of the adoration of the Magi.
Gifts are like that. A crayon drawing in the vague shape of a flower is a treasure. How? When it is handed by a 4-year-old to a mother. It is received as it was given.
The last letter of a son killed in a distant war.
A faded wedding dress
An old box of dry, wilted, long-stem roses.
These are trinkets made treasures. Treasures because of the power of love, and of memory.
So, this Christmas, go ahead. Fill the room with brightly colored boxes and shining bows. Celebrate the birth of the eternal King with the giving and receiving of junk. Sure, I know, the ribbons will be taken out with Monday’s garbage. The toys will be fortunate to last a month. The appliances will wear out. The clothes will grow too small, or too large, or become hopelessly out of style. In this we follow the way laid down long ago by those mysterious visitors from the east.
And if, like them, we find our way to this King of the Jews, and lay before him all our life’s achievements and all our amassed store of treasured possessions, we’ll find, like them, that he does not need any of them. But, as he did long ago, he’ll accept them as they are given—as the symbols of our love and adoration.
And, as he might have done when the gold and frankincense and myrrh were laid before him, he just might smile.
Tom Lawson serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.