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Joseph Campbell wrote that early in a hero's journey a gift is often given to help the hero return home. The gift's power is unclear until the moment it is needed. Odysseus, the Homeric Greek superstar, was given a bag containing the west wind to help him get home. Dorothy, upon entering Oz, got the ruby slippers, and Luke Skywalker got the Force.
There are gifts that at first don't appear to be gifts. As Elijah, the prophet, arrives disguised as a beggar only to bestow riches on the one who takes him in, so too the greatest gifts are often cloaked as misfortune.
I think of the gifts passed down from our ancestors, traits both physical and personal. My friend Sue got a Mother's Day card last year from her daughter that read, "Thank you for my lips."
As a kid, the anticipation of the night before Christmas was excruciating. We'd run downstairs at the crack of 4:30. "Get up, everyone, he's been here!" Mom and Dad groggy like they'd just gone to bed. Mom makes coffee as we dive in to the presents.
The order we opened presents was essential. First, gifts from aunts and uncles, usually socks, then presents in boxes shaped like my brother's boxes. I would open them and quickly hold up what he was about to receive. Then Santa's present for last. Santa always nailed it. He knew me, the me of me. And it was something that read my mind, heart and soul. And had wheels or a fuse.
Then off to church to make ourselves worthy of what we'd received. There were some things the pastor said about Christmas, things I didn't understand.
How could Joseph be married to Mary and not know her? She was standing right there. Did he have that kind of amnesia that makes everything new? And what were these wise men about?
They were featured in the second-best Christmas song, behind "Jingle Bells Batman Smells." It went, "We Three Kings of Orient Are, Puffing on a Rubber Cigar." But there were a lot of unknowns surrounding them.
They were like the mysterious side heroes, like Sacagawea or Ed McMahon.
And their names, Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior, showed promise like names of rides at the State Fair. But the gifts they brought were baffling. Gold I understood, but frankincense and myrrh? It sounded like a cologne for a late-night creature feature.
• • •
Every year the Sunday school put on a Christmas pageant.
The fifth grade always starred as the manger scene characters, but the whole school was involved. The idea was that the more kids who were cast in the show, the more families would attend. The costumes for the manger scene were in storage but everyone else had to fend for themselves. We got to wear the same costumes all of our brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts had worn. All the shepherds in burlap, the wise men in curtain and sofa fabric, and Mary and Joseph in sequined bathrobes. Filling out the scene were sheep, cows, chickens, elves, reindeer, candy canes, snowflakes, Tiny Tim, Rudolph. One kid recycled his Halloween costume and came as the "holy" ghost. The kid playing Gabriel had read that the Angel was a wrestler, so he had the school headgear on. The stage looked like a showroom for the "Every Christmas Lawn Ornament Ever Invented" convention.
I got to play Joseph. I decided to portray him as a dad who was there for Jesus because God's job took him out of town a lot. I imagined him to be a good carpenter, helping Jesus with his Soapbox Derby car and joking around in the shop. "I've cut this twice and it's still too short."
Mary, as portrayed by my classmate Joan, was magnificent. She was already pretty, but in that holy, forbidden garb she was absolutely ecumenical. When we lined up, the three wise men, myself, the shepherds with yarn beards, and Mary, a foot and a half taller after an early growth spurt, we looked more like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The pageant went off just fine; the drummer boy played "Wipeout," and the congregation applauded. The twins playing the cow got in a fight so it looked like the cow was punching itself in the stomach and kicking itself in the neck. The audience laughed, except their dad, who pleaded to don't make him come up there.
I messed up a line because my best friend, Paul, played the donkey and kept calling himself an ass, only like, "I am such an ass," and "Does this saddle make me look big?"
And during my line he kept interrupting, saying, "Hay Joseph, Hay, Hay."
The big finale was when the choir sang "O Holy Night," and we all looked at the Holy Child. An orange extension cord ran through the manger like a celestial umbilical cord and into the crib. It powered a 3,000-watt outdoor searchlight that powered up at the end of the song. It must've been spectacular, that white light illuminating our faces. We were ordered to focus on the light bulb with looks of adoration for what must have been 10 minutes. Then a blackout. After staring at that light bulb for 10 minutes I couldn't see anything. Huge blobs of light danced before my eyes. As the audience applauded, children wandered around like Silent Night of the Living Dead.
They pulled the curtain just as a kid named Dean succumbed to the vertigo and passed out. He dropped where he stood, which placed him halfway in and out of the curtain, his candy cane legs sticking out on the audience side and looking like the scene from Munchkinland when the house dropped on the sister of the Wicked Witch. The look was complete when the Sunday school teacher pulled Dean straight back behind the curtain.
• • •
I took a seat on a bale of hay next to a kid I knew from school, one of those kids who reads for pleasure. His name was Argyle or Mylar or Lavalier. He played a shepherd and had thick glasses, like he was a shepherd from the future. He had a speech in the pageant and his lateral lisp sent a shower that caught the light perfectly. "Actually" -- he began every sentence with the word "Actually" -- "It is we simple shepherds steering ourselves by the shining star, spreading salutations and solemnity, hosanna, in excelsis Deo."
The parents sitting in the front row were in desperate need of a salad shield. Paul whispered, "Careful where you step."
Now I looked around at the pandemonium. Children and abandoned props lay all about, one of the wise men had dropped his gift, a coffee can with painted macaroni "jewels" glued on.
I said, "What is frankincense and myrrh, anyway?"
Mylar or Lavalier said, "Actually, they were preservatives, very useful in the days before refrigeration. Also used for their antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, prescribed for everything from indigestion and chronic coughs to hemorrhoids and halitosis. Used for embalming, as well."
I wiped my face. "Cool."
He smiled. Someone had said "cool" about knowledge.
Then I got it ... the wise men really were wise. What could you give a baby whose father is God? One used to a life of harps and clouds and ecstasy?
These gifts were there to ease his journey on Earth. "You're not in heaven anymore. It's rough down here. Things spoil, you can get hurt, sick, have bad breath. And one day this form will cease to serve you."
I realized gifts were powerful.
My parents and grandparents talked about getting an orange for Christmas during the Great Depression. They said that orange tasted better than anything they ever ate.
I remember the sweaters and pajamas from Grandma and the socks and underwear, the frankincense and myrrh of their day.
I especially remember getting a pen and paper set from my Aunt Betty, the best letter writer in the world. I saved all of her letters. They are works of art. That gift she gave me was part of her. Just the thought of it brings her back to me.
A gift may be a gesture.
A gift may be a discovery.
Ultimately, a good gift is an act of love, a comfort in a time of need, a way home.
A great gift is an answer waiting for its question.
Kevin Kling is a storyteller and writer in Minneapolis and artist-in-residence at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Chris Monroe is a writer and illustrator in Duluth whose "Violet Days" comic appears every Friday in Variety. Kling and Monroe collaborated on "Big Little Brother," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.