The Gifts They Gave – Johnny Cash (1963, The Christmas Spirit)

Click on image to listen to song for free.

This is the Christmas post that is all about the Nativity side of Christmas music.  All of us see the manger scene with it’s regular characters every year; and if you’re parents of young children like me you smirk at the “reinterpretations” of history that the kids make to that iconic stable.

However, it isn’t very often that we sit down and think about what that night was actually like for Mary, Joseph and cast of furry loiterers.  “The Gifts They Gave” (or “The Friendly Beasts”) is a classic Christmas song that helps our imagination with a few features that may have been present on that first Christmas night.  There are not many versions of this tune to choose from (unlike so many other Christmas carols that have been covered by everyone and their brothers), but I’m convinced that we only needed this one anyway.

Johnny Cash is not someone who needs an introduction, except to say that his music and style is a perfect fit to highlighting the humble, earthly side of the Nativity story.  Here are the lyrics to “The Gifts They Gave”:

Jesus our King, kind and good                                                                                          Was humbly born in a stable of wood                                                                                 And the lowly beasts around Him stood                                                                          Jesus our King, kind and good

 “I” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,                                                                                   “I carried His mother up and down                                                                                            I carried His mother to Bethlehem town”                                                                               “I” said the donkey, shaggy and brown

 “I” said the ox, “This was my hay                                                                                            I gave Him my manger ’twas here that He lay                                                                        I gave Him my manger ’twas here that He lay”                                                                      “I” said the ox, “This was my hay”

“I” said the sheep with pearly horn                                                                                          “I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm                                                                              He wore my coat on Christmas morn”                                                                                  “I” said the sheep with pearly horn

“I” said the dove from the rafters high                                                                                     “I sang Him to sleep that He would not cry                                                                          We sang Him to sleep my love and I”                                                                                    “I” said the dove from the rafters high

And so every heart by some good spell                                                                                 In the stable dark was glad to tell                                                                                          Of the gift that he gave to Emmanuel                                                                                    Of the gift that he gave to Emmanuel

In some sense, this is a silly song.  For who really knows what animals were present that night, what they really did or even if they felt anything at all about the significance of Christ being born.  It is a comforting thought, perhaps, to believe that God’s creation noticed what God was doing that night.  But it is also just as plausible to think that the stable was really more of a cold cave and the animals fussed and smelled, frustrating the young family who had invaded their space.  Hardly the peaceful picture of a manger scene centered on a quietly content newborn with perfectly behaved creatures all around him – but who knows what it was really like, right? (something tells me it was probably not a silent night)

And yet, in another sense, this song is simply priceless.  Not priceless, in the “Precious Moments” sort of way, but priceless in the holiest of holy ways.  Jesus our King, kind and good was humbly born in a stable of wood.  The manner of God’s incarnation was incredibly humble and, therefore, incredibly sacred and profound.  The One True Creator nestled His earthly arrival among the simple beasts of His work.  The Almighty Power of the universe self-restrained His glory and might for the sake of being amidst the feeble and the weak.  The Transcendent Being put on flesh and blood…for you.

And now the moment has arrived.  He is here.  And the question has become, “What is your gift for Him?”  According to the song, the animals gave of their essence and uniqueness: a sheep it’s wool and a dove it’s song, etc.  So what of our essence and uniqueness could we possibly offer to the God-made-man?

The answer lies within the design of salvation history.  God made humankind different from the animal kingdom in that we were fashioned in His image (Genesis 1:26-28).  We think and reason, we feel and moralize, we have souls.  We were made by God in such a way that we would deeply desire to connect with God at a heart/soul level that no other being could possibly do…not even the angels (Hebrews 1&2).  So, when we ask ourselves, “What could we possibly give to the new born King, Jesus Christ?”; the best answer is always the simple yet profound, deep yet childlike, answer: our hearts.

Here is a bonus song for today’s post that beautifully imagines this conclusion in a winter scene where each snowflake is individually unique and special, AND together billions of snowflakes unite to reflect the entire beauty of God.  Meaning, when we all choose to give our hearts and lives to Christ, we give the only gift that God would especially consider worthy on both a personal and corporate level.  This song is by a group called Rue Royale and it is called “Snow On Snow.”  I am sure that I will blog more about them later, but for now let this song along with Johnny Cash’s number remind us all of this important Christmas formula:

Humility is defined by what Christ did for us.  Humility allows us to see our best gift for the Christ King: our heart of hearts.  Let it be said that this was truly the gifts that they we gave!

Click on image to listen to song for free.

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