Every Christmas, families gather together to enjoy a meal together, to catch up, share memories, and give each other gifts. Where does this tradition of giving gifts come from?
Christmas Gifts and Jesus Christ
I remember fondly how every member of our family, including cousins, aunts, uncles, and a host of distant relatives we rarely saw otherwise, would always gather together at my grandmother's house every Christmas. The atmosphere was always exciting and cozy. Groups of adults gathered in the kitchen to drink coffee and eat a huge variety of cakes and other pastries. Others gathered in the family room to chat in front of the fireplace, while we children usually ran around outside having snowball fights and building snow forts. When it grew dark everyone gathered together in the family room, crowding each other on the couch, floor, and various chairs brought in from the kitchen or elsewhere. My great aunt would take her customary place in front of the Christmas tree and meticulously read out each name and who the gift was from. It was almost like a Hallmark movie, with the soft glow of Christmas lights indelibly imprinted on my memory. Most of us share similar memories. Some of the gifts we received as children were exciting to us — that new toy truck, the latest video game, etc. For others, we politely said thank you and set to the side. These were usually the socks and underwear you received. Decidedly less exciting gifts they were. No matter the gift though, there was something very important in the tradition of gift-giving itself that simply continues to bring a smile to us, no matter our age.
The question of why we give each other gifts at Christmas is an important one since I believe it elucidates the core of why Christmas is important, to begin with. Shortly after Jesus Christ was born in that humble cave in Bethlehem, a group of extraordinary men came to visit Him. Mary and Joseph must have been astonished at their arrival, as these men were considered to be very wise. They were dressed in a fashion befitting their station in life since kings and other rulers sought their advice on the most important matters. And yet, here they are standing in this humble dwelling, looking for a king who they knew was to be born having seen His star in the east. These wise men did not come empty-handed, mind you. They understood the customary tribute paid to all kings must be paid even to newborn kings.
And so, they came with gifts in tow for this infant king. Matthew 2:11 tells us they knelt down before this baby and worshiped Him. Then they presented Him with their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Now, I am not saying that this is the core reason for gift giving on Christmas. I am certain there are a host of other, more cultural influences that inform our gift-giving. Yet, the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the guiding reason for the entire holiday, including our gift-giving. Our motivation for giving gifts should be to do so in honor of the birth of our Savior, who gave us the most precious gift of all — salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). One of the problems with Christmas today is that it has strayed from the sense of the sacred and for most has become a secular holiday, filled with all the stress and materialism one would expect when the Lord is removed from the center. Instead of receiving gifts in a spirit of humility and thankfulness, our children have learned to demand the most expensive toys, the latest in video game technology, etc. And if they do not receive it, then other children mercilessly mock them.
Adults are not much better themselves, often expecting expensive gifts and barely concealing their disappointment when they do not get what they wanted. For these people, Christmas is a dark time, a financial drain, and is dreaded rather than looked forward to.
What Is the Christmas Spirit?
We give gifts to express our love and appreciation for others. Love seeks the highest good of the beloved. Most of the time the highest good is not met with expensive gifts, but with simple things of everyday use or value. Those socks and underwear our parents bought us, while they could never excite us as much as the latest video game, were the deeper expression of their love for us, manifest as provision. To help your family keep Jesus in Christmas is to have a weekly family study time on the topics of love, charity, thankfulness, andgracethroughout the Advent season. It need not be a long, drawn-out Bible study, but a simple 10-minute discussion connecting each of these characteristics to the birth of our Lord. It might help to use anAdvent calendaras well. One with all the chocolate everyone loves so much. Just be certain to have enough extras for everyone. Another thing you might consider is setting up a manger scene in your home, and praying together each evening, thanking your Heavenly Father for the birth of Christ, as well as all the blessings you have received throughout the year. Most of all, thank Him for the gift of salvation given to you even though you did nothing to deserve it. Get involved with your church's Christmas programs. Volunteer to help out in whatever way needed and do so as a family.
Trust me, pastors are always more than happy to see more people involved, so never think to yourself, "Nah, they have enough people helping out. They don't need me. I'd just be in the way." There is always some way you can help, even if it is something as humble as cleaning up after choir practice.
What Does This Mean?
Remember, your time and energy are gifts you give freely to Christ through His church, so it is one way you give back to the Lord. Finally, be sure to attend church throughout the Advent season since the readings from Scripture and the sermons will all help to focus your heart and mind on the true spirit of the season. Take in the beauty of Christmas as if it were the first time in your life that you had ever experienced the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Rekindle the wonder and awe of the beautifully decorated trees, the carols, and the hymns, and take time to remind yourself of what is most important in life. Enjoy the eggnog, the cinnamon pastries, and the gifts, but do not lose sight of the greatest gift of all — your Savior who humbled Himself to become a little child in a cave in an insignificant place called Bethlehem.