Every Christmas, I like to read O. Henry’s timeless story about two people who each want to give the other the best Christmas gift ever. They fail in the sweetest way possible, and the story always brings a tear to my eye, even though I’ve read it dozens of times.
As I unwrapped my Christmas crèche this year, I recalled my own story about the wise men. It happened back in 1993, when I was living in a small guest house in San Gabriel, California.
My husband and I had moved into the guest house after our own house and just about everything else we owned had burned in a wildfire at the end of October. We weren’t thinking about Christmas much. We were mostly thinking about what we were going to do in the wake of a life-changing event.
A small box arrived in the mail one day in mid-December. I opened it, wondering as I did who had sent us something from Germany. Nestled amid some tissue paper and excelsior were three hand-carved wooden figurines. It took me a minute, and then I remembered. Of course! The wise men!
In 1990, Mark and I had taken a trip to Europe. The highlight was a visit to Oberammergau, where friends were living at the time. They introduced us to their good friend, one of Oberammergau’s world-famous wood carvers. We decided to participate in a lovely German Christmas tradition: to build a crèche one year at a time.
The first year, we received Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in a manger. The next year, a shepherd arrived, followed by two sheep and a donkey. In 1993, when the last thing on our minds was Christmas decorations, it was time for the three wise men.
That year, they stood on the counter in our little guest house alone, each one holding a gift for a baby that wasn’t there.
In the years that followed, we slowly rebuilt the crèche with replacement figurines from Germany. We’ve now got a full tableau, including a camel and an angel.
Every year, when I unwrap each little statue, I remember the year it seemed like the wise men had come to the wrong house. Sorry, guys, I used to think. Your star has led you astray.
But now I know they weren’t misguided after all. They showed up right when we needed them most, when we needed to be reminded that Christmas comes no matter what, and a new year after that. That year, the wise men themselves were the gift of the magi.