White Gifts Sunday

Communion Sunday always inspires me, as I try to pray for everyone who comes forward to receive the host: parents with children mostly in hand, senior singles, teens in their social bunches, and the less mobile waiting to be served in their seats. But yesterday was also Epiphany Sunday, celebrating the Magi coming to the cradle of God Incarnate, bringing themselves as gifts to the Christ Child.

And in our congregation Epiphany Sunday is also White Gifts Sunday! Each year three church members process down the aisle in culturally diverse royal robes, offering the proverbial boxes of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a real baby or doll lying in a hay crib on the chancel. Once they’ve come forward, it turns into happy chaos, as children lead the way, romping to the chancel to bring gifts of all sizes, all wrapped in white. They dodge among scores of adults bringing their white gifts to the manger, too, as all of us sing “We Three Kings” over and over again. The white gifts are much-appreciated necessities for local groups that serve people in homeless situations, those who need help feeding themselves and their families, and battered women and children seeking a new life.

So where did this tradition of White Gifts Sunday come from? It began in 1904 in a small Methodist Church in Painesville, Ohio. Apparently the pastor’s wife initiated the idea for the Sunday school Christmas party. The same wrapping encouraged the children to shift their focus from receiving gifts to bringing gifts to Jesus to be shared with people around the world who didn’t have much. The gifts were to be wrapped in plain white paper, so participants would make no distinction between more expensive gifts and those that cost less.

Since that Midwest beginning, apparently many United Church parishes in Canada have taken up the tradition, linking it with Advent and Christmas. The St. David’s and St. Paul’s congregations in Rothesay, New Brunswick, make it a child-centered service. Walton United Church in Ontario distributes offerings mainly through the nearby Wesley No-Charge Christmas Store and in support of a local charity called Food 4 Kids. Summerlea United Church, in Lachine, Quebec (pictured here) also involves their children in a Christmas play during worship that day.

Yesterday, our pastor said that those original three wise ones brought their curiosity and courage to see this new thing God was doing. They brought gifts of worship, adoration, and themselves as gifts to God. – May we also become gifts to God in Christ, as we give to and receive from others around us.

Your partner in ministry,

Betsy Schwarzentraub