Two memorable Christmas days

Mom began quietly picking up torn Christmas wrappings scattered across the parlor of our Southwest Iowa farm home. I sat on the floor, too numb to move. There were no more family gifts to open this Christmas morning. 

December 24, 2019   By Jerry Carlson — My sister Carolyn, age 14, somberly assembled her gifts of a new sweater, mittens and necklace. She sensed I was fighting back tears of disappointment.  Mom folded wrapping papers and smoothed out wrinkles so we could save the larger pieces for next year’s gifts. 

Dad wordlessly left the northeast parlor, which we opened only on Christmas and kept closed behind French doors in winter to save heat. It cost money to fuel the coal oil stove in our living room. In 1947, a 240-acre livestock farm in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa didn’t generate extra money for expensive gifts.

I saw Mom’s and Carolyn’s eyes glance at something behind me. I turned to see Dad handing me his prized bolt-action .22 rifle he kept locked in a closet.

“You wanted a rifle,” he said softly, handing me his magnificent Mossberg. I held its dark walnut Mannlicher stock, which extended the full length of the gleaming blued-steel barrel. I began blubbering for joy. I sat there shaking and wiping my eyes at least ten minutes — unable to see how every eye in the room was also shedding tears. 

Dad had always told me I was too young for a real gun. Now, he trusted me at age 11 by gifting me his favorite and only new gun, a nearly-new Mossberg 42M .22 rifle. It even had a leather carrying sling. Finally I was able to stand up, still quivering, and walked over to give Dad a big bear hug. That was something I could never recall doing before. But have done it many times since that day. 

Mom swung into action. “Let’s start getting dinner ready, Carolyn,” she announced. On our farm, "dinner" meant the midday meal.

“Take the turkey out of the oven. Jerry, bring in the Ostkaka from the porch before it cools offf, and put the strawberry Krem sauce in the blue bowl.”

The four of us relaxed into our delicious holiday dinner, crowned by our traditional Swedish cheesecake, Ostkaka, made with milk from our own cows. Gratefully that year we had no Lutefisk, a salted Swedish whitefish which had a pungent fish aroma which would saturate our house until New Year’s. 

That 1947 Christmas day was somehow prophetic of a greater future gift. In the mid-1960s when Jill and I bought our first home in suburban Philadelphia, Dad loaned me $5,000 to help with the down payment. But our family grew faster than my associate editor’s salary at Farm Journal. We could only pay the annual interest on the $5,000 debt. My failure oppressed me. I feared every phone call from Iowa. Could it be Dad reminding me about the unpaid principal? But he never mentioned it.

Five years into this torment, we drove to the home farm in Iowa for family Christmas. By then, Carolyn and Glen were renting the folks’ 240 acres. They longed to own at least part of that farm. After all the morning gifts, Dad called me, Jill, Carolyn, and her husband Glen to a “business meeting” around the living room table. I cringed; suddenly felt cold. Dad handed Carolyn an envelope. He gave me a second envelope. I could see the bold type Promissary Note through my envelope. A chill of Reckoning Day crawled up my spine. 

“Carolyn, open yours first.” She held up a $5,000 check from Dad. She gasped. Dad said, “That’s for the down payment on 40 acres and your home, out of the 240.” My sister teared up; Glen put his arm around her.

I stared at my envelope. Jill put it into my hand, and I fumbled it open. Out fell my original $5,000 promissary note to Dad. The back side had only blank lines where principal payments should have been recorded. But penciled across the front of the note in Dad’s bold handwriting were three words: “Paid in Full.” 

My Dad loved us so much that he, himself,  paid the debt I could not. And being absolutely fair and equitable, Dad gave my sister Carolyn an equal gift. 

For me, that $5,000 forgiven debt became a parable of what God did at the first Christmas. He paid our unpayable debt himself by giving us his only son, Jesus, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life! 

Jesus’ final words from the cross were in Greek — tetelestai — usually translated “it is finished.” In Jesus’ time, this phrase was typically written across fulfilled promissary notes. It certified “Paid in Full.” Those who heard Jesus speak that phrase surely understood His profound meaning.

Two memorable Christmas days. Two symbolic blessings. Our prayer is that your home, your family, will also be blessed and surrounded with uplifting, forgiving love this Christmas Day and into future years!