“I know what I want for Christmas” a little girl in our parish announced a few days ago. “A princess outfit!” Christmas is the great occasion for the giving of gifts, following the tradition established by the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. Of course, a gift is not earned, or merited, but is purely gratuitous; it is (depending on the circumstances) a sign of friendship, love, or affection, or a way of expressing profound thanks.

There is the apocryphal story of the British Ambassador to the United States in the late 1950’s who was phoned out of the blue by a radio station in Washington DC. “Ambassador,” they asked, “What would you like for Christmas?” “I shouldn’t dream of accepting anything,” he replied without thinking. They persisted; “Seriously, we would like to know and don’t be stuffy. You’ve been very kind to us during the year.” So he replied, “Oh well, if you must. I’d like a small box of crystallised fruits.” On Christmas Day the radio station broadcast what the Ambassadors of the world’s leading countries wished for Christmas. “World peace” intoned the German ambassador; “Freedom for all people enslaved by Imperialism,” from the Russian; “The end of hunger and want” pronounced the Canadian, “The elimination of poverty” by the French, and finally for Her Majesty’s Ambassador “a small box of crystallised fruits”.

With the exception of the British Ambassador the ‘wishes’ of the others were for things that were then, and now, totally attainable but require effort, political will, sacrifice and investment to bring about. We hear variations on this this theme every single year. They are all variations on Jesus’ request, in Matthew’s Gospel, to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the destitute, and caring for the sick.

Gifts are exceptional; they are the icing on the cake of life, not things we should be doing, giving or in receipt of anyway. Just as salaries are not gifts, neither is decent housing, clean water, healthcare or respect. Neither should world peace be, or the elimination of hunger, poverty and homelessness, all of which are attainable.

I don’t know whether the Ambassador got his crystallised fruits but I do hope the little girl gets her princess outfit. Have a Happy and Holy Christmas.