One Christmas many years ago I found myself huddled in the cramped rear seat of an old bus bouncing through the German countryside on its way to Weisbaden. It was a horribly chilly winter night. Several of the windows toward the rear of the bus were busted out, and the other 28 people on board (all native-born Germans) were huddled up toward the front where it was warm. But as I was the last person to get on board, there was no more room in the “heated” section, so I was relegated to the arctic gale in the rear, among the baggage. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if Weisbaden hadn’t been a full 10 hours away. And even that might have been tolerable if I’d chosen a different wardrobe. Expecting a long ride through the night on a heated bus, I had chosen to wear only shorts and a t-shirt. My bags had been loaded onto a different vehicle, which was nowhere in sight.
It was a truly awful experience. I spent the first four hours rubbing my arms and legs to keep them from going numb in the cold, or else shifting piles of duffle bags to block the wind from hitting my skin. I was never quite successful at either task.
But then, sometime in the fifth hour of my ordeal, something extraordinary happened. A young German woman sitting up front (whom I had never met) noticed me all bunched up in the back in my pathetic shorts and t-shirt, and she quietly asked one of the men up front to carry her thin jean jacket to the back of the bus and offer it to me.
I literally wept with gratitude. No kidding. It didn’t matter that the jacket was far too small for me to put on, or that it provided only minimal insulation against the cold. I was just so moved that this stranger who didn’t even speak my language would extend such kindness to me at a time when I really needed it.
That was in 1990, and I still remember it as if it were yesterday. As I’ve reflected on that experience in the years since, I come to realize that the gift that woman brought me wasn’t really the jacket. The real gift was her kindness. I never even learned her name, but I will always remember the gift of her warm and caring heart.
During this season of giving, I think it's important to look beyond the stuff under the tree and think about the larger gifts you have both given and received in the past 12 months. Perhaps they came from strangers who crossed your path in a time of need, or perhaps they came from those who know you best. But whatever their source, their impact is unmistakable. They are the gifts that awaken our souls. They evoke tears of gratitude. They provoke us to think more deeply about who we are and what we offer the world. They change us for the better. These are not the sort of gifts you purchase at the store and wrap in a box. They come directly from the heart, and we give them to each other in myriad ways—through a warm embrace, a kind word, or just by our faithful presence in another person’s life.
As you reflect on the past 12 months, what are the biggest “soul gifts” you have received from others in your life? Who gave them to you? How have those gifts impacted you? As a part of your Christmas celebration this year, why not contact each of the people who come to mind and thank them personally for the unique gift they have brought into your life?
Now consider the other side of the equation. What is the deeper “soul gift” you have brought to others in the past 12 months—that life-affirming treasure that flows naturally out of you when you are at your best? To whom have you given that gift this year? How has the gift impacted their lives? If you have trouble identifying the gift you bring, consider asking the people closest to you to name it for you. You’ll be surprised how quickly they are able to do just that.
The presents we exchange at Christmas are merely symbols of a deeper gift that’s far richer and more lasting. So as you celebrate Christmas this year, remember this: The real gift you bring to the people in your life…is you.