The Christmas Troll
Eugene Peterson & Will Terry
Christmas is about the Incarnation; we all know that. But I’m going to venture a guess that gift-giving is part of how your family celebrates Christmas Day. My family does, at least, and I think it’s a perfectly fine tradition. As we reflect in gratitude on the Father’s extravagant love in sending his Son for us, it seems right to express our own love for family, friends, and neighbors in tangible ways.
Of course, gifts can become the exclusive focus of Christmas Day (or even the entire month), and we would do well to avoid that pitfall. With the right perspective, though, giving and receiving gifts can be a very meaningful part of a Christ-centered celebration. Lucky for us, several years ago Eugene Peterson wrote a book that creatively articulates for children a sort of theology of gift-receiving. Even luckier for us, the book is masterfully illustrated by artist Will Terry.
The Christmas Troll tells the story of a brother and sister duo who run away from home because their parents won’t let them open any of their presents before Christmas morning. They escape to a nearby forest and end up meeting, to their surprise, a troll. First, they’re scared out of their wits (well, at least the big brother is). Then they notice how very ugly the troll is . In the end, though, he turns out to be quite a nice chap who shows them a good time and in the process turns their attitudes upside down.
As they enjoy the troll’s company the siblings realize the truth of their parents insistence that gifts are not for “grabbing and getting,” but that the best gifts are surprises that are freely given and joyfully accepted. Here’s my favorite line in the book:
It’s wise to live life expectantly, alert to the surprises of God.
It’s a message that’s clearly ripe for Advent and Christmas. We need to know how to think rightly about how receiving gifts, not just from one another but also from God. It’s right to expect that God will give us good gifts, but our posture toward him should never be demanding. Our attitudes should reflect deep gratitude for his grace, not self-entitlement.
In addition, Peterson wants to help us realize that sometimes God’s gifts don’t look quite like we expect them to. If we have a very particular definition of what constitutes a good gift, we are going to miss out on many of God’s gifts because we might not recognize them as a gift at all. Each of us could tell of things in our lives that, like the troll, we almost failed to recognize because our eyes weren’t open to the surprises of God. Essentially, that’s what this story is about: opening our eyes to God’s surprising gifts. The beauty of it is the way it can equally teach us about God’s way of working in our lives, Jesus (who was and is unrecognized by many), and how to graciously receive a funky gift from a relative. I warmly commend it to your family.