One of the biggest aspects of the Christmas holiday every year and for some one of the biggest causes of anxiety is the tradition of ‘gift-giving.’ Kids love it, parents sweat over it and creditors and merchants inundate us with ads reminding us to buy, buy, buy! This isn’t an altogether bad thing mind you, who doesn’t love to receive Christmas gifts each year? As long as you spend within reason, try to do the best you can in terms of ‘picking out the right gift’ and quietly return or re-gift the presents you really don’t like–gift giving is a wonderful part of the Christmas season. But why do we give gifts at Christmas? In other words, where did this tradition begin? Just like the past few days, I did some immediate research to find out. Here is what I learned…
Of course, the Magi aspect of the Christmas story roots the idea of gift giving in Scripture. The wise men (although we don’t know how many there were for sure) are presented in the Gospel narrative as bringing three gifts to the Baby Jesu: Myrrh, Frankincense and gold. But to say that this tradition of ‘gift-giving’ began at the birth of Jesus and has continued in uniformity ever since is a bit simplistic. We know that this just isn’t true. So what do we know?
We know that in pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (December) and Kalends (January) seasons to pay homage to the emperor and their gods. Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. It wasn’t until the Ancient Christian Church adopted this custom did we begin to associate (albeit correctly associate!) gift-giving with a Christ-centered aspect.
Gift-giving is also associated with one of the early church bishops by the name of St. Nicholas. We celebrate St. Nick in a contemporary manner each year when we take our kids to see Santa Claus. Notice the nuance. When we take our kids to see Santa Claus, its not that we are worshipping him but rather celebrating St. Nick. But why should we celebrate St. Nicholas? December 6th (yesterday) was St. Nicholas Day on the Church Calendar. I would encourage you to read more about St. Nick and his contribution to the church before you decide whether or not to exclude that tradition from your Christmas season.
All in all, the tradition of gift-giving is a wonderfully beautiful aspect of the Christmas season. Why? There are two reasons. First, gift-giving symbolically points us us back to Christ as the ultimate gift given by God the Father to His children. But gift-giving to one another has another aspect as well. Each time we give someone a gift, at one level, we are saying to that person, ‘My life for yours.’ We are one-anothering, one another. When we receive that gift, we are demonstrating back to the giver a form of submission and humility. This year, let us give gifts in the same manner in which we have received the ultimate gift. Not from a posture of guilt or pride but rather from a posture of grace and love.