Why Do We Give Presents at Christmas?



Over coffee a few days ago, my sister in law and I were able to discuss Christmastime and how materialism has taken over, no matter how hard we try to fight it. Why DO we give gifts at Christmas, if Christ’s birth is the reason we have the holiday in the first place? (Obviously, if one is an atheist, then on this point we agree to disagree).

Many say that we give presents because of Saint Nicholas who lived close to 2000 years ago. He gave money to help those in need, so we do the same. Others have said it’s because we are celebrating Christ’s gift to us– His divinity married to our humanity, enabling us to be loved and healed by Him.

Giving gifts is fun, but when does it drift away from honoring Christ and towards celebrating materialism instead? Many Orthodox families I know solve this dilemma by giving the majority of their presents on Saint Nicholas’ Day (beginning of December) and leaving the Christmas holiday free from commercialism.

Others are trying to bring back the 12 days of Christmas, leaving the parties, cookies and presents for the 12 days AFTER Christmas, instead of letting it take over the day after Halloween ends. The premise? You can’t enjoy or fully appreciate something unless you’ve anticipated it first.

I’ve been thinking deeply over this issue, and have arrived at the following proposal. At the very least, Christmas Day should center around what we are celebrating. Not just the night before with a candlelight service, but also the morning of.

Lest this sound crazy, let me tell you that our family has been going to church on Christmas morning for the last few years, and it is wonderful. It never feels like a drag, it just feels joyful. We still have time for presents, we just don’t start them until around noon, when we get back from church. Instead of opening presents and having that, “now what?” feeling, we begin already feeling satisfied. The presents are the icing on the cake instead of bearing the responsibility of being the focus.

I don’t suggest this radical solution lightly, but I do think that where we spend our time shows where our priorities truly lie. Maybe it’s become such a tradition in our country that we don’t realize we’ve fought materialism for the weeks leading up to Christmas, only to ultimately give in to it at the final hour. Shouldn’t we spend Christmas morning centered around Christ? The name, “Christ-Mass” even suggests the tradition that used to lie within this holiday.

And what does this mean– to be centered around Christ? Are we just “remembering” Him?

Our church may be radical in this way, but we don’t do “remembering” all that well. Why remember someone if they’re still here, longing to be in a relationship with you? I can remember Jesse fondly, but the real joy comes when we decide to actually spend time together. We spend time with Christ by being in His church, celebrating with the angels, and then finishing with communion.

My sister in law (who isn’t Orthodox, by the way) and I both discussed that perhaps churches should offer a Sunday morning service, complete with communion. Presents can wait, but we need to spend time with the One who created us first and foremost.

And, as far as gifts are concerned, I am NOT against giving them. I love gifts! Everyone who knows me realizes that gift-giving is one of my love languages, programmed in from birth. But if Christmas is about communion with Him and with others,the gift givers need to have the proper perspective. The gifts should be about building relationships, picking things that don’t necessarily cost a lot but honor the bond between the giver and the receiver.

In his recent article, Fr. Stephen Freeman talks about how Christmas is about communion with one another as a way to honor His own gift to us. We all know we’ve had certain gifts that meant more than others, years down the road, and it’s because we remember the giver and the relationship that they had with us. Otherwise, why not just buy the present yourself?

Last but not least, if we are trying to defeat the commercialism that plagues the holidays, what if we acted like the shepherds, coming to meet Christ in his lowly manger? We would have to find those who are lowly, and choose to spend our time and money with them instead of with those who already have much.

In one of my interviews last week, someone asked me if I felt that spending time with my foster boys opened my eyes to the true meaning and impact of Christ’s birth. And I realized that it did, and not just because we read them the Nativity Story for the first time. Proximity to those who have suffered and have little opens your eyes to your own blessings and your own appreciation of the gifts you’ve been given.

What if, just, what if, we decided on one gift to give those who meant a lot to us and spent the rest on others? We wouldn’t have problems like, “What to give the person who already has everything”, that’s for sure.

When we first received our foster boys, they didn’t even have jackets. They had 3 pairs of pants between them. They had never owned a single electronic, never worn a shirt with a button or collar on it.

And yet, I decided that they would help us sponsor a boy through our church. We picked out clothes for this boy to wear, because I wanted them to participate in the joy of knowing that the moment we have clothes on our backs, we give to others like there’s no tomorrow.

I didn’t even have to encourage this much. Later, they even came to me, asking if I would buy cans of food for their school’s canned food drive! They wanted to give cans of food to the very food bank that probably fed them for years!

I don’t mean for any of this to come across as preachy, I just have done a lot of thinking on this subject and felt the need to share.

What did you all do in order to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas this year? How did you find ways to give or make presents more meaningful?

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