Gifts are a big part of Christmas. You might have already opened gifts this morning or will be this afternoon or tonight or have in the weeks leading up to today. Some like my son in law Adam, will still be opening presents in January when his family gets together for Christmas.
Once, when I was about ten, I ruined Christmas for my family when we were opening presents. Every year, one of the three kids would be asked to pass out the presents that were under the tree Christmas morning. When I was ten, it was my year.
Santa that year had wrapped all of the presents in white tissue paper. Probably a cost saving measure for the North Pole, because Santa didn’t even use two sheets of tissue paper but only one. So being a smart alecky kid, I passed out each present to my brother and sister announcing what was clearly behind the thin tissue paper. Trina, good news, here is that Elton John album you wanted. Keith, Santa got you an erector set. As the rest of the family realized what I was doing, they asked, begged then ordered me to stop. But, of course, being ten, which was frankly just a shorter version of me today, I carried on. Trina, I can’t tell what this is, but the box says Lion Store. I haven’t always been this charming and loveable.
Wikipedia told me that the historical reason for why we give presents at Christmas was because that’s what the Romans were used to this time of year. One of the largest of the Roman holidays was a celebration of the winter solstice. When the winter solstice came they not only threw a great party but they gave presents, too.
When the Roman government officially became Christian after the conversion of their emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Wikipedia says they wanted to clear the calendar of pagan celebrations. The solstice party had to go. Knowing that taking something away from people always goes easier if you give them something in return, they created a celebration to replace the solstice feast, Christmas, the birth of the savior. The stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke don’t give any indication of the date or time of year he might have been born. To make the people happy, the earliest Christmas celebrations involved feasts and gift giving just like the solstice party.
I like to think that there is more to gift giving at Christmas than just a political calculation. There are valid, faithful reasons that gift giving is appropriate at Christmas. We are imitating the three wise men, who brought fabulous and luxurious gifts. The shepherds don’t appear to have had gifts, but who knows, maybe they gave a baby Jesus a nice wool onesie made from their sheep.
The reason I think makes the most sense as to why we give gifts at Christmas is found in the John prologue I just read. As Eugene Peterson writes in his translation of this famous passage, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” God gave the first Christmas gift, moving into our neighborhood so we can see the glory of God with our own eyes. This is an amazing and generous sacrifice. It is so huge it is hard for us even to get our head around.
God gave us the first gift on Christmas, a huge sacrifice and we give gifts of sacrifice in God’s name when we celebrate Jesus. It really makes sense, doesn’t it? And when you think about it all gifts are a sacrifice. Every gift given, no matter how small, represents a sacrifice of time, money or talent or all three solely to bring joy to someone else. The greatest gifts are not the most expensive. The greatest gifts are the ones that show the most love. And usually, the gift that shows the most love is the one that involves the greatest sacrifice from the giver.
On the weekly radio show, This American Life, I heard a story about a Christmas gift that involved sacrifice. Two sisters, five and ten, received from their parents identical, beautifully wrapped presents. Their parents were poor and they did not normally receive something so grand looking to open up on Christmas.
They tore into the presents with huge smiles on their face. Their parents were excited at the good reception of these beautifully wrapped gifts. But, the girls smiles turned to frowns after they had torn off that shiny wrapping paper. The gift was a decorated cardboard box meant to go over a tissue box. The decorated box had a definite homemade look about it.
The five year old started to sniffle, as tears came to her eyes. The parent’s happiness at their children’s initial glee left them quickly as they looked almost ashamed at this meager gift. The ten year old saw her sister’s tears, and her mom and dad’s shame and did something truly remarkable. She pasted a smile of excitement on her face and breathlessly said to her sister, “Oh my gosh, I saw these on TV, trained monkeys decorated and made these. Can you believe it sis? Trained monkeys made these. How cool is that? These must have cost a fortune.”
The five year old’s sniffles, stopped. She smiled at the thought and began to investigate the box that she had initially underestimated. She got enthusiastic about the idea of monkeys designing it. The parents looked at their daughter thankful and relieved. The five year old placed the tissue box on her dresser in her room and for years told all of her girlfriends who entered that trained monkeys had made it. It became one of her most prized possessions.
It was not until she was in college that she learned the truth by reading a high school essay her older sister had written. In the essay, her sister described that Christmas morning as she remembered it but then wrote that after she went to her room and cried. She didn’t know why. It was definitely not disappointment in the gift. She just felt overwhelmed. At ten she not only realized the poverty of her family, but she had to put her disappointment aside in order to put other’s needs first. She had to sacrifice being a child and that sacrifice meant the world to her family.
The heart of Christmas is the giving of gifts. The best gifts are not always the most expensive, those wrapped in shiny paper or the biggest box under the tree. The best gifts are sacrifices that we make to each other so all will know love and be loved. These are the best gifts because they come closest to the gift of Jesus, who came to us so that we would know love and be loved. Amen