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As Christmas approaches, I find myself mulling over something which is starting to make me just a little uncomfortable: the possibility of eliminating giving from our Christmas celebrations.
Let me backtrack a little: I often hear people say, or even say myself, variants of “We won’t do presents this year”, “Let’s just give to the kids – we adults don’t need anything” and “Why don’t we do a Secret Santa instead?” Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty that is very good about the sentiments beneath these suggestions. Most of us can’t afford to give something exquisite to everyone we know – or even just everyone in our family – and we’re clear that Christmas is about something more meaningful than racking up credit card debt. Also, we know we don’t need more Stuff. So attempts to decrease this buying (which we can’t afford) of presents (which aren’t needed or wanted) can be very sensible.
But there’s a problem when we connect the giving of gifts purely with the accumulation of material possessions.
See, Christmas is about giving. Whether you celebrate Jesus’ birth or not, it’s clear that this is a story all about giving: the giving of God’s son to His people; the giving of Mary in pregnancy and labour; the giving of Joseph in reputation; the giving of the innkeeper in the stable; the giving of the shepherds in adoration and worship; the giving of the wise men in their extravagant gifts. Our tradition of giving stems from this story – and we lose a sense of what Christmas is really about when we stop giving.
One reason we can be keen to eliminate gifts at Christmas is the fear of getting the wrong thing. I know that as I get older, I become more sure of what I like and what I don’t, what I’ll wear and what I won’t, what I’ll display in my home and what I won’t. To be honest, the thought of being given something I dislike does fill me with a sense of futility about the whole procedure. Surely it would have been better to give the money to the poor, I muse, echoing the complaint of Jesus’ onlookers, when a woman gave him, to put it bluntly, a very impractical gift (Matthew 26, Mark 14, John 12). For what do you get for the man who has no home, and no possessions other than those he wears? Perhaps a new robe or a new pair of sandals? Definitely not a jar of expensive perfume. And yet this was exactly the right gift, for it came with the love of its giver.
Gift-giving is not an exact science. We will not get it right every year, with every person we buy for. And neither will they always hit the mark with us. Gift-giving is not an exact science – but neither should it be. Gifts are there to express how we feel about our family and our friends – sure, the product itself might not always be a brilliant choice, but the act of giving it says “I thought of you – I took some time to think of you as I shopped for, or made, your gift”.
Next week, I can pretty much guarantee that all of us will receive some things we don’t like. Perhaps things we hate. How can we receive them graciously, looking not to the unwrapped package, in all its hideous glory, but to the eyes of the giver, and what that person means to us? We invest a lot of time in teaching our children not to be greedy, to be content, that gifts aren’t the main event at Christmas – but it’ll only take them a few seconds to glance at our faces showing obvious disappointment at a gift, and all that will be undone. How can we teach contentment, when we so clearly show that we’re unhappy with our own gifts?
This Christmas, my prayer is to be more gracious – more Christ-like – in the receiving of gifts. I’m not going to lie, but perhaps my response to an unwanted gift might be more focussed on the giver, and not on the gift itself. “That was so kind of you”, “You’re so thoughtful”, “Thanks for thinking of me”. I want to use it as an opportunity to deepen my relationships with those I give to and receive from.
Jesus came to earth as a tangible expression of the relationship God seeks with each one of us. I hope and pray that each one of us can grow in our relationships with each other this Christmas.