I stepped away from of Christmas gift-giving gradually. My first confused questions started when I was a teenager, wandering around a crowded mall trying to complete my gift list. And the questions persisted, growing more and more bold, until I finally stopped giving Christmas gifts altogether about fifteen years ago.
Ironically, during that same time it was becoming more apparent to me that gift-giving was central to the Christian life. I was coming to believe that everything we do should be a gift to others, just as it was in Jesus’ life. When I could finally specify clearly what I disliked most about Christmas gift-giving, it was that what happens at Christmas is almost the opposite of what true gift-giving should be.
As Jesus taught, gifts should be given without expectation of anything in return. That’s basically the definition of a gift. Yet at Christmas there is definitely an expectation of something in return–we don’t give gifts, we exchange. Jesus also taught that, when we give, we shouldn’t make a show of it or expect recognition. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” But what have we made of our Christmas gift exchange? One of the biggest shows of the year, a show in every home (“OK, this one is from Aunt Lily…”), a parade of charity emblazoned on billboards and full-page newspaper ads.
Perhaps the part that confused me the most when I was younger was how to find the inspiration to give gifts suddenly at a certain time of the year. Now I think I understand love better. Love doesn’t appear out of nowhere at Christmas like Santa Claus; it doesn’t count the days until it can express itself. Love gives when the need arises. Love appears when we encounter someone that God wants to touch and we let that healing touch work through us. But this doesn’t happen according to the calendar. And we don’t have to scratch our heads trying to figure out what to give. When God shows us someone in need, and we’re paying attention, God also shows us what to give.
This is all lost when we make gift-giving a seasonal event, and gifts become meaningless trinkets destined to clutter someone’s closets and garage (and storage locker, etc)–because no one we know really needs anything. Such a show is not a beautiful celebration of gift-giving. It is a twisting, an undermining, of the true meaning of gift.
But what about St. Nick?
The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:
A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and, in absence of any other possible employment, may have had to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes “of age.” Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.
People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.
A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned before: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can’t pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn’t give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That’s real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.
Where I’m living right now, among a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or “Three Kings Day.” To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men’s gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don’t really need anything).
And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn’t any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.
But why don’t we follow their example?