“Silver and Gold” by Burl Ives

My favorite song from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which I watched last night, is “Silver and Gold.” The song seems almost tacked on to the whole program, and I had no interest in it whatsoever as a child. In fact, the entire Yukon Cornelius subplot of Rudolph (which provides the song with its tenuous incorporation) bored me to tears.

But as time moved on and I began to take more notice of lyrics, it was this tune that began appealing to me most, with its simple and beautiful message:

“Everyone wishes for silver and gold

How do you measure its worth?

Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth

Silver and gold means so much more when I see

Silver and gold decorations on every Christmas tree”

I started to treasure “Silver and Gold” as I began to face some harsh realities about adult life. No matter how much you have, it is never enough. You can be making $500, $5,000, or $50,000,000 a month, but always something will be out of reach of your pocketbook. And no matter how much you have, how much you buy, you’ll still be yearning for something more.

Things, more things, better things–they serve as distractions. They are ways to pass time, to externalize internal dissatisfactions. At the holidays, consumption can become all-consuming. Kids worry over what they will get from Santa. Adults agonize over what to buy one another. I myself fall victim to the excesses and pressures of holiday gift-giving. There have been times I’ve felt resentful that I am obligated to spend more money when my budget is already stretched. Other times I’ve wondered whether others will ever really appreciate the effort and energy spent on finding unique or special presents. And as soon as Christmas is over, I am being urged to splurge on New Year’s events, Valentine gifts, and President Day sales . . .

The tradition of exchanging gifts is an imitation of the Magi giving gifts to the newborn Jesus. When I was younger and would read the Christmas story, I would sometimes wonder what happened to those items of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mary and Joseph were poor. I’m sure they could have made desperate and understandable use of the Wise Men’s offerings. Did they trade them for food and necessities? Did they use them to help Joseph improve his carpentry business? Or maybe to help educate the boy Jesus when they took note of his prodigious gifts for preaching and teaching?

At some point I accepted that what happened to those gifts had no relevance. Jesus’s teachings were based on the idea of salvation being attained by separating ourselves from material things, by placing no emphasis whatsoever on earthly goods.

So why is the story of the Wise Men included at all? Maybe we need to consider it from a different angle. Here’s some perspective offered by one of my literary heroes, Mr. T.S. Eliot:

“And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.” (From The Journey of the Magi, http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070)

Three men saw a sign. They accepted it as true. Despite being men of learning, comfort, and occupation, they put aside everything to embark on an arduous journey. At that time, in that place, their beliefs led them to prioritize acknowledging a birth and paying homage to a child. Nothing mattered more than showing outwardly their wonder and great happiness over this event.

Upon their arrival, they found a child lying in a manger–a newborn human, who had no comprehension of their appearance, no appreciation of their efforts, let alone their actual presents. But somehow they intuited that in and from this little baby, gifts existed that neither they, nor any of us who would attempt to mimic their path, could ever fully return.

So, this season, as I hand over parts of my own earnings to but gifts for loved ones, I will try to remember the importance of what lies behind the outward gesture, and perhaps the message, the ongoing present, that the Story of the Magi offers to me:

  • That I care for these people enough to put money aside for them
  • That they mean enough for me to sacrifice not only my money but my time
  • That, even if only for a few minutes, they are important enough to occupy more room than usual in my mental space, so often focused exclusively on my own wants and needs
  • That, yes, these other people would be worth, to me, a journey similar to that made by the Wise Men
  • That people I love always, without question, are worth more than all the world’s silver and gold
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