When I asked our newlywed Sunday School class to share a favorite Christmas story from their family, Carrie Fuller said, “We have one we call the ‘brown bag Christmas.'” When she finished, I had to hear more. The next day, I called her mother for details. And that week, I phoned her grandmother in Texas.
It was the early 1930s during the Dust Bowl days of Kansas, in the heart of the Depression–ground zero for misery.
The Canaday family—Mom, Dad, 7 children—were having a tough time existing. There would be no luxuries at Christmas that year. Mom told the children to go outside and find a Christmas tree and decorate it. After a lengthy search, they returned with a dead branch, which they stood up in a bucket of sand and decorated with pieces of colored paper tied with string. Little Judy, almost four, did not know how a Christmas tree was supposed to look, but somehow she knew it was not like that!
As Christmas approached, the Canaday children, like little ones everywhere, pestered Mom and Dad about what presents they might get under their “tree.” Dad pointed out that the pantry was bare, that they did not have enough to live on, and there certainly would be no money for gifts. But Mom, a woman of faith, said, “Children, say your prayers. Ask God to send us what He wants us to have.” Dad said, “Now, Mother, don’t be getting the children’s hopes up. You’re just setting them up for a disappointment.” Mom said, “Pray, children. Tell Jesus.” And pray they did.
On Christmas Eve, the children watched out the window for visitors, but no one came. “Blow out the lamp and go to bed”, Dad said. “Nobody is going to come. No one even knows we’re out here.”
The children turned out the lamp and got in bed, but they were too excited to sleep. Was this not Christmas? Had they not asked God to send them the presents He wanted them to have? Did Mom not say God answers prayer?
Late that night, when one of the children spotted headlights in the distance, everyone jumped out of bed and ran to the window. The commotion woke up Mom and Dad. “Don’t get excited, children,” Dad said. “It’s just a car over on the highway.” The children kept hoping and the car kept coming, finally turning into their yard. Then, Dad lit a lamp. The children all wanted to rush to the door at the same time, but Mr. Canaday said, “Stay back. I’ll go.” A car door slammed and a voice called, “Could someone come help me unload these bags?” The children exploded out of the house. Mom grabbed little Judy as she ran by. “Stay here, honey, and help me put up everything.”
What had happened was this…
A deacon from the church in town had gone to bed that Christmas Eve, and lay there tossing and turning, unable to get the Canaday family off his mind. Later, he said, “I didn’t know what kind of shape you folks were in, but I knew you had all those kids.” He had gotten out of bed and dressed and gone around town, rousing people from their sleep to ask for a contribution for the Canaday family. He filled his car with bags of groceries, canned goods, toys, and clothing. Little Judy got a rag doll which remained her favorite for years.
With so much food, Dad wanted to have a Christmas feast, to spread it all out and eat as they had never eaten before. Mom, ever the caretaker, said, “No, we need to make this last.” And it did last, for weeks.
The next Sunday, Mrs. Canaday stood in church and told what the members—and one deacon in particular—had done for her family. There was not a dry eye in the house.
Years later, the oldest daughter Eva wrote up this story about her family for a school project. Eva said, “We were so thrilled by all the wonderful things in the bags, for a while we lost sight of the most special gift. The best gift that Christmas was not in brown bags at all. It was Mom’s faith, as she taught her children to bring their needs to Jesus and trust Him to meet them. And a Dad’s love that wanted only to protect his children from hurt and disappointment.”
When Carrie finished, she added, “Little Judy is my wonderful grandmother.” Today, Judy Canaday Dryden lives in Sanger, Texas. After getting her phone number from Carrie’s mom Paula, I called her. As Mrs. Dryden relived this event from seventy years ago over the phone, one could hear the tear in her voice and sense her pride in being the recipient of such a precious heritage from her mother and father.
At Christmas, we celebrate praying mothers and caring fathers and believing children. In particular, let us give thanks for deacons who are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and with courage enough to get out of bed late at night and wake up their friends and neighbors to do good things for those in need.
Let us praise God for the hard times that teach unforgettable lessons, stories of faithfulness that get told and retold through the years inspiring each new generation to place their faith in a loving Savior.
2016 postscript. Judy Canaday Dryden died this year, the last of her large family. She left behind a legacy of faith and love. Her family’s story of the brown bag Christmas has circled the planet a couple of times, and we hope it will continue. Feel free to use it if you can. Not necessary to attach my name to it. I merely passed it on.