Every Christmas as a young child, I remember waking up bright and early on the 25th to race my sister up the stairs to find a red stocking stuffed full of presents and treats left by some mysterious guy with a red suit and white beard. After going through the candy canes, chocolate bars, baseball cards and Barbie dolls, in the toe of the stocking we would always find a brightly colored orange.
I never really understood why a simple, ordinary orange was always the last thing to be found in the stocking. It was always kind of anti-climatic, and to my childhood logic, it seemed an unfortunate waste of space in an otherwise prodigious bag of gifts. Forget about saving the best gift for last. After various years of this tradition, I think I came to the conclusion that the annual orange in the stocking toe had some sort of structural purpose, perhaps it's bulk opened up the rest of the stocking to make loading in the real gifts a bit easier for Santa or the parents or whoever.
I do remember, however, that every year as my sister and I pulled out that last gift of a brightly colored orange, my grandmother would get all excited and somewhat nostalgically satisfied. "Oh it's an orange," she would say delightedly as my sister and I marveled at her enchantment with the mundane. It wasn't until somewhere around my 16th birthday, when I grew old enough to feel "too cool" for the Christmas stocking but still entitled to its treasures when I discovered the meaning behind the proverbial stocking-toe orange.
My grandmother lived all her life in Michigan, a place whose white, frigid winters were perfect for Christmas spirit but ill-suited to growing oranges. As a child, every Christmas she would find an orange in the toe of her stocking; a mysterious fruit brought all the way from some exotic warm place called Florida where palm trees, instead of pines, were decorated for Christmas. That yearly Christmas orange given as a gift in the dead of winter was, for my grandmother, quite the treat. It was special and unique, because of its rarity and because of the natural limitations that made of oranges a scarce commodity in Michigan.
As a child, I never could identify with the exceptionality of an orange in a stocking toe, because for me oranges were abundantly and infinitely obtainable from the shelves of the nearest grocery store. Although I had never seen an orange tree along the streets of my hometown of Chicago, it never occurred to me as a child that something as menial as an orange could be special, much less be given as a gift. I grew up in the age of infinite accessibility where any limitation, natural or otherwise, was to be shunned. The whole world was to be my birthright and as they taught me in elementary school, if I just tried hard enough, I could be anything, do anything, have anything.
It was this way of thinking that, among other things, gradually transformed Christmas into such a hectic, frenzied time of year where the buying and giving of gifts became the focal point of the season. If our culture has grown to be defined by its lack of limitations, then Christmas is its apex where no holds are barred in the quest to quench our unlimited wants.
Nonetheless, how many people have desperately struggled to find the perfect, most unique and special gift only to discover that there is almost nothing that fits that category in a world where supposedly everything is attainable to anyone? Gift giving between the generation of my grandparents and my own has radically changed. Whereas a simple orange was once the quintessential perfect gift, today exceptionality in the realm of gift giving is close to impossible.
This infinite accessibility to the resources of the world has made our lifestyle more comfortable, perhaps, but has also made us ungrateful as a people. We have grown incapable to be surprised and appreciative of the small wonders of life. In our quest to attain and control everything, we have lost the ability to understand the natural (and perhaps unavoidable) limitations of our place and thus be thankful for the gifts that do transcend those limitations.
Under the influence of this mindset, the true and deeper meaning of Christmas has also been mollified. In the Bible we hear of Mary who was "troubled at the words" of the angel announcing to her the birth of her virgin child. The pastors who also were approached by angelic beings proclaiming the birth of a child Savior were "filled with great fear." Unaccustomed to the miraculous, both Mary and the pastors were able to fully comprehend, appreciate, and value the weight and magnitude of the enigmatic event of the Incarnation.
My generation, however, has lost its ability for wonder, astonishment and amazement. Nothing is out of the ordinary because everything is within reach. We have taken full-on the God-complex of being everything, doing everything and having everything, and from this mindset, everything from an orange to the Incarnation of the Christmas message is nothing more than just another available product. There is no reason to be "troubled" or "filled with great fear" at anything because we have supposedly conquered the world and have been given free access to all its bounties.
To truly understand the depth and meaning of the Incarnation, we need to reconstruct a culture that values and treasures the simple gift of an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking. Only the mentality that values the unique because of paucity will be capable of gratefulness, and gratefulness is the requisite to truly value and accept the miraculous gift of the Incarnation.