More than ever, the Christmas season has turned into something it was never intended to be — the Gift Holiday. We pay a lot of lip service to Jesus and peace on earth and all that stuff, but we spend the majority of the Christmas season shopping. For many of us — myself included — it turns into a whole lot of time dedicated to buying and getting presents. And, sure, we can say what we want about generosity being a Christian virtue. But let’s face it: a lot of the gifts we buy are obligatory and unnecessary. We give because it’s expected of us, and the gifts we pick out for each other are usually things that, to be honest, most of us can afford to buy for ourselves…especially if it’s something we really, really want. Where is the virtue in that? We defend our purchasing by saying “It’s the thought that counts,” but why, then, does that thought have to cost a certain amount of money?
Maybe it would help to think about the origins of the whole Christmas gift-giving tradition. Likely, it developed from a couple of different sources:
Source #1: The Wise Men from the East delivered gifts to the Christ child, as described in Matthew 2:1-12. We usually compress this detail into our Christmas stories — after all, every Nativity scene features three gift-bearing wise men and at least one camel, right alongside the visiting shephards — but it probably happened long after the actual birth. Jesus and Mary were in a house by then, not a stable. Some scholars even think the Wise Men showed up as many as two years after the birth of Christ. At any rate, the things they brought weren’t exactly on Jesus’ shopping list. What kind of gifts are gold, frankincense, and myrrh? They’re definitely not the kinds of things you give a baby. Or a carpenter, for that matter. Instead, they were the kinds of treasures typically reserved for a king. Over the centuries, there’s been a lot of debate as to the purpose or symbolism of these gifts, but what seems clear is that they were given as an act of worship.
Source #2 isn’t the kind of story you tell the family on Christmas Eve. It ties back to the original Santa Claus: St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra. According to the legend, he helped out a poor father who couldn’t afford to pay the dowry to get each of his three daughters married. Back then, unmarried women ended up in prostitution, so Nicholas secretly gave the father bags of gold for each daughter’s dowry, saving the girls from their fate. Santa Claus has evolved a lot since that story — depositing Wii games into an oversized stocking is a far cry from offering life-saving cash to a desperate father — but the root of our tradition is there. (In the Catholic tradition, by the way, today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. You can read a whole lot more about his story in this article I wrote for the December 2007 issue of RELEVANT Magazine — *PDF download*)
So we have a question to ask: Does our giving this Christmas reflect either of these two scenarios? Um…
Well, if our only choices are 1) Magi gifts that worship God, or 2) St. Nicholas gifts that serve the poor, then I’ve got a problem. Maybe you do, too. The presents I’m wrapping for my family and friends don’t quite fall in line with either of those categories. It’s easy to get defensive about it because buying and receiving gifts is so much a part of our celebration of Christmas. But I have to be honest and admit that the way I practice it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Jesus. It’s just a tradition…a tradition that makes us happy, because we like to give stuff. And give stuff. Mostly, we just like stuff.
So what do we do with a cultural tradition that may have started with Jesus but doesn’t have much to do with him anymore? Maybe we subvert it by slowly turning it back toward the original emphasis. Are there ways you can give more meaningful gifts this Christmas? Can we move beyond buying stuff we don’t really need? Can we simplify Christmas by giving gifts that matter — homemade gifts, or family photographs, or quality time spent with the most important people in our lives? Or can we somehow find ways to give gifts that serve the poor? If that sounds good to you, here are a few places where you can do just that:
Full confession: When it comes to my family, we haven’t changed our Christmas giving wholesale. But we’re becoming more deliberate about it. We’re taking steps to scale back a bit. In doing so, maybe we’ll get closer to the gifts given at the first Christmas gifts…or, if not that, then at least the gifts given by the original St. Nick.