How Do Christians Give Gifts at Christmas?

by - Friday, November 25, 2016

christian giving christmas tree

Today is Black Friday, and that supposedly means the beginning of the Christmas season. Really? A day of sales and crazy lines for printers and tv's is how we kick off our celebration of the birth of Jesus? If Jesus were alive today, do you think he would go to Walmart for that crazy deal? So why is this such a significant part of our Christmas?

Don't get me wrong. I love gift-giving. It is my love language, and honestly, I have bought and receivd some great gifts in my time. I take it seriously, because I really love to show people how much I care about them. I have family members who are ridiculously great gift givers.  But I can't figure out where the balance is between being a good Christian and really celebrating Christmas, and that seems like such a weird conflict to me. I would never ever suggest someone is a bad Christian because they buy a lot of gifts or because of where they buy them from, but I do think there are parts of these decisions that aren't often considered from a religious perspective, and maybe they could be.

Even though I write this blog, I find it easy to get caught up in the desire to buy great gifts, but the more I think about it, the more I question where the line is between gift-giving that brings people closer together and closer to God vs. gift-giving that really has lost the plot. This is a weirdly personal question, and I think the answer might be different for everyone, but I think it's a question worth asking.

This topic has been looming large in my mind the past few weeks- exactly how does our family celebrate Christmas in a way that is faith-based instead of revolving around commercialism? I mostly don't talk about my faith on this blog for a couple of reasons:

1. I make money off this blog (no, not a lot. So far, I have made a whopping 11 dollars) and I don't think Jesus or my relationship with him makes a good product or brand. I think there is a reason that Jesus got so angry when he saw people selling things in a temple. Christianity and commercialism don't mix that well in my opinion.

2. I don't think what I write about is exclusively useful to Christians. Or Liberals. Or environmentalists. The whole point here is that taking care of the Earth is everyone's task, and our over-consumption is everyone's problem. We may all come at it different ways or for different reasons, but changing our approach to material things is beneficial to anyone, no matter their walk of life or how seemingly small the step.

That being said, I do think first of my fellow Christians and my own lived faith this time of year.

And when did we start looking to businesses (whose primary goal by definition is to make money) to be arbiters of our faith? If this day is sacred to us, why would we want Starbucks to use it to sell more coffee? Why would we be so willing to see it sold out, but even worse, be offended when companies aren't using it to schlep cheap goods? Something is wrong here.

I will be honest with you. I am not throwing our Christmas tree away, and I will still be giving presents to loved ones in the next month. At the same time, I am ready to stop just talking the talk about what a shame it is that Christmas is so commercialized. It's time to make a change.

 I think it is time for some concrete goals. Read on if you are with me.

Why Do Christians Give Gifts?

Christmas gifts are important to Christians first because the three wisemen brought gifts for the baby Jesus when he was born. More symbolically still, the gifts refer to Jesus himself as a gift given to the world. In other words, our gifts are meant to mimic the amazing and miraculous gift-giving of God. Lucky for all of us, gifting is apparently His best love language.

The other symbols at Christmas spin off of these two themes. Santa Claus is a modern incarnation of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop who was known specifically for his generosity and giving. He gave to strangers, primarily, which resonates with the wisemen figures, who gifted to Jesus Christ, not to each other.

During the Middle Ages, the stocking tradition was tied to Saint Nicholas's name day, towards the beginning of December. He put gifts in their socks. During the reformation, Martin Luther tied this generosity to the gift of Christ, and Saint Nicholas moved his sock-filling a little later.

Gift giving has moved dates more than once too- because it was modeled after the wise men, some Christian traditions, especially Catholicism, gave gifts at or until Epiphany in Januray (ever wonder where the 12 days of Christmas comes from?).

The Christmas Tree is only about a thousand years old, but the fir tree was part of Pagan rituals before that. Now, it is said to symbolize everlasting life. Which is also a pretty massive present when you think about it.

So even Santa Claus, who often gets a bad rap as the stand in for all Christmas commercialism, ties right back to the gifts of the wisemen and the gifts of Jesus Christ. So this is a part of our tradition, but how does a few humble gifts in a sock turn into gift mountain?

So then, How much is too Much? 

Whatever I think is just enough, it should probably still be less than that. The story of St. Nicholas is about small gifts that make a big difference. The wisemen brought grand but also small gifts.

Right now, the average American parent spends 271 dollars a kid on Christmas gifts. We are in such a rush for our gift shopping that Black Friday is creeping into Thursday. When talking to kids about Christmas, the most commonly asked question is about what they want for themselves.

This obsession with buying gifts, so so many gifts, is costing us in so many ways.

Our generation works constantly to afford all the things we want, rather than spending time together.

Our committed searches for the best deals encourage companies to drop their standards around labor and materials. Jobs are outsourced to places where they can treat people badly. Tons of fossil fuels are  wasted needlessly so those slightly cheaper crayons can travel half way around the world.

I want to underline this again, other human beings also created by God and in His image are treated worse than we can imagine so we can get that cheap gift. In the past few years, it has come out that there are factories using child and slave labor. A factory making clothes for Walmart and other stores YOU shop from was in such poor conditions that a fire killed hundreds of people.

This is not a thing out there that some other mean person did. We helped in this, and we need to change it.

And it doesn't stop there. Those big piles of gifts cause other problems as well. Trees are being cut down at rapid rates when we need them most to keep our air clean and our temperatures down. Beaches are covered daily in garbage, like the plastic those cheap toys come wrapped in. Landfills are filling up and our children's water is being poisoned with plastic.

Now, if we see the planet as a beautiful gift from God, one of the best gifts He has ever given us, how does it make sense to celebrate a day praising Him by destroying his Earth? Or letting people he created be treated that badly? How is that good stewardship?

It would be comforting to feel like this is out of our control, but honestly, most of us are responsible.

Every time I buy something made in Elsewhere, I send the company the message I don't mind, so they will keep doing it. Everytime I buy some cheap piece of junk because it is on sale, I send the market the message that I care more about a good deal than quality or ethics. We are part of the problem, but that means we can be part of the solution too.

We as the body of Christ need to take steps to solve the problem. Now, this is all super depressing, which is the opposite of what you want to feel this time of year, but I think it has potential to be really great.

My suggestion? We start at Christmas. We start cutting down the gifts we buy. We look into more eco-friendly options for the gifts we do buy. This isn't about refusing gifts from others or judging how they live their lives, it's about self-assessing and finding a balance that feels right for each of us individually.

I have 3 new goals this Christmas to keep my giving in line with my faith and my charge to be a steward.

First, is to only buy things that I don't think are doing harm or dishonoring God. I will buy used to keep things out of landfills and to save money. When I have to get a gift new, I will buy things that are environmentally-responsible and made as locally as I can find.

Second, to cut down the number of gifts significantly. No gift mountain here.

Third, to introduce more traditions about giving outside of our household instead of within it. To make donating and giving a regular part of our holiday routine.

So how do We Change our Traditions? 

It's easy enough to say "We will buy less this year," but then the pile looks too small. Or the gifts don't seem quite even. Or it is just so fun to watch a toddler open a gift. I know for myself, it is so so easy to get carried away.

So the real answer is that a Christian Christmas tree can look any number of ways and that "too much" is so different for each person. It's subjective, and I honest to goodness am not out to judge people. Just to figure it out myself.

I have heard the "something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read" idea, and it is a good idea for limiting gifting, but it doesn't have much to do with Christmas. I would make it the birthday rhyme, but we have already decided on one gift and one experience/surprise as our family's birthday formula (awesome and it works).

I read this suggestion on my minimalism and motherhood post, and I want to share it with you, because maybe a variation would be perfect for your family:

"About 8 years ago my sister and I started the tradition of giving our kids 3 gifts each. At my house Santa brings them, at my sister's Santa only fills their stockings and the gifts are from mom and dad.
The gifts each have a meaning correlating with the gifts that the wise men brought to Jesus.
The first gift is their GOLD gift. It is their biggest gift and may be expensive, but not necessarily. It can be the one thing they REALLY want or it can be chosen by the giver. It signifies how valuable they are to the family. It is wrapped in gold paper or has a gold bow on it.
The second gift is their FRANKINCENSE gift. Frankincense was sacred and burned exclusively in the temple. This gift should have something to do with how your child "meets" with God. We've given devotional books, worship CD's, even a pocket cross, or a book that teaches a moral lesson. Frankincense is a white substance, so this gift is wrapped in white paper.
The final gift is their MYRRH present. Myrrh is a resin that was used to scent oils and perfumes. It was also used in preparing bodies for burial, and has special symbolism since Jesus came to earth as a baby only to later die for our sins. It is dark earthy substance so it is wrapped in brown paper. This gift can be something they anoint their body with, like perfume or shower gel, or simply a gift for their body. In the past my kids have received clothing or something to help them keep their body in shape (like skates or anything that helps them be active).
My children LOVE this tradition. I hope it makes someone's Christmas more meaningful."

If you want to read her inspiration, check out this blog. A commenter said that they do a similar thing, gold is something they want, frankincense is something they need, and Myrrh is an experience.

I love this idea, and I especially love the symbolism of the three kings creating a more direct and thoughtful connection to the nativity story. It keeps the number really low, which is important to us (if you buy 3 gifts instead of 30, you can put more thought and money into each one) but it also makes the link between what we do and why we do it spiritual instead of cultural. It more clearly connects what we see at church with what we do at home.

I want to add one other thing to this. These kings came to give gifts to strangers from a foreign land with faith they were worthy of that love. I want to be much more generous about giving out this year, not just within our family but to people who really need it. I saw a tradition of a reverse Advent calendar, where everyday in Advent we add to a basket of items to be donated elsewhere. I think my goal is to spend more time on helping others than shopping.

How do you incorporate giving to others in your family?

How do you manage Christmas gifts at your house? How many presents is too many? Do you think about how the gifts were made or who made them? Has anyone been successful at instituting a smaller, more stewardship-oriented Christmas at their house?

Most importantly, what does being a Christian steward mean to you and how do you live that out at Christmas time?

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