No one will ever match the generosity of God. In giving his only son to a sinful world, he set a standard that will never be met. People continue to try, though. In their short-sighted way, they keep attempting to give something that is “bigger and better.” One of the Texas specialty houses this season is suggesting a bathtub filled with diamonds, and no doubt someone will pay the price for the super present.

In the crop of 1975 Christmas books is St. Nicholas: Life and Legend by Martin Ebon (Harper & Row). The legends surrounding Santa Claus’s precursor are many, and the author admits some difficulty separating fact from fancy. However, one of the best-attested tales coming from over seventeen centuries suggests that old St. Nick (then young Nicholas) might have pointed us toward this misemphasis on the monetary value of gifts.

The story goes that a widowed nobleman in his town had three eligible daughters but was unable to find them husbands because he was short of dowry money. Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the window of the nobleman’s home for each of the girls. He tried to do it anonymously, according to legend, but he was discovered. Three gold balls are usually shown somewhere in the paintings of Nicholas. These came to be his symbol (and that of “redeeming” pawnbrokers of later times).

If Nicholas did indeed seek to give without credit to himself, he set a worthy example. However, what we seem to have adopted is not the example of anonymity but the idea that gifts mean material things. And we have extended it to mean that the bigger the bag of gold involved, the better the gift.

God’s present to the world was a person. He incarnated his love. Christians observing the celebration of the nativity nineteen and three-quarter ...

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