While most of us observe the holidays as best we can, there are always those who refuse to do so. Often, these people argue that gift giving represents the commercial exploitation of Christmas. Rather than spending time buying, giving, and receiving items we don’t need, they suggest that we spend that time in contemplation of the true meaning of the season, and working to fulfill others’ needs rather than their wants.
Certainly, such arguments make valid points. Observing the holidays can be stressful. We carve time out of our busy schedules to decorate our homes, send out cards, cook and bake, attend parties, and participate in or attend programs. Christmas also serves as a magnet, reminding us of past events (good and bad), as well as the friends and family members no longer with us. Coming as it does at the end of the year, it coincides with our natural tendency to review the last twelve months, and compare our intentions with our achievements. With so much going on, traveling to stores, searching for appropriate gifts for everyone on your list, wrapping them, and finally handing them out can seem like an immense, meaningless, and unnecessary task.
While I acknowledge the above arguments, I cannot believe that anyone truly dislikes receiving gifts. Especially not from friends and loved ones, and particularly gifts carefully chosen with a person’s interests in mind. In regards to proper gift giving, I’m not talking about getting an item you need, but something that you’d love to own, even if you might never justify buying it for yourself. People often hold onto a well-chosen gift long after its usefulness has expired, even if it clutters up their home. It reminds them of the giver, and the sentiment behind it. Even if the giver is no longer their friend, lives far away now, or has passed on into eternity, the present remains a link to past times, the fellowship they once shared, and the importance in which the person once held them.
Christians are particularly adept at arguing against the importance of gift giving at Christmas. They point to the homeless, to the programs that help families in need, or to the starving millions in other countries. They trot out figures such as the amount of money people in their country cumulatively spend on presents (as if such figures could ever be calculated accurately) versus the amount of financial aid their government gave to a less developed country in past years. Pastors even preach from the pulpit that, faced by so much need, gift giving represents greed and selfishness.
This is nothing new. Christians are People of the Word, and ever since there has been a Bible, Christians have used scripture to justify anything they did or did not want to do. So perhaps I’m merely twisting the Word to my own purposes when I point out that several wealthy and wise men once undertook a long and arduous journey to give an infant lavish gifts he didn’t need, and that his parents, with the exception of the gold, had no practical use for. Perhaps I’m equally wrong to point out that all four gospels record an incident in which a woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. Some onlookers were offended by the woman’s act, as according to Mark 14:3-9, the perfume cost 300 denarii, which equaled the amount of money the average laborer would make in a year. The disciples point out that the perfume could have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor. Yet what does Jesus say? “Why are you bothering this woman?” he asks them. “She has done a beautiful thing. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (NIV version)
If such stories as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teach us anything, it is that providing for others’ needs is mandatory, not optional. But people have emotional needs too, and after the physical ones have been met, those should be addressed as well. Others can do as they wish, but I choose to give those I love and care for gifts that they do not need, but I think they’ll appreciate. In the process, I’m making my holiday season busier and more stressful. Perhaps I’m also pandering to commercial interests. But I know I will not have those special people with me forever, and so I wish to thank them, in this way, and especially at Christmas, for their friendship and love. Perhaps, as Jesus said, I am even doing a beautiful thing. At least, that’s my intention.