20 years ago in U.S. Catholic: Put something different under the tree

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Article Saints, Feasts, and Seasons

By Mary Clare Brady

This article appeared in the December 1993 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 58, No. 12, pages 31-33).

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,... it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair... "Charles Dickens wrote those words to describe the time of the French Revolution in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, but he might well have been describing the Christmas season in general and the experience of Christmas shopping in particular. Anyone who finds himself or herself standing bewildered in the middle of a large, crowded department store for a few days or even a few hours before Christmas has some idea of what I'm talking about.

I spent several Christmas seasons as a high school and college student clerking in a department store, and each year I was amazed by some of the scenes that I witnessed. As it grew closer to Christmas, it was the worst of times: The shoppers became more and more frantic, and their gift selections became more and more haphazard.

By Christmas Eve, people would grab almost anything that wasn't nailed down and race to the cash register. These were desperate acts by desperate people; one woman nearly decked me when she threw a salad bowl Frisbee-fashion at the checkout counter in an attempt to be the first one in line. I learned then and there never to get between a last-minute shopper and the merchandise.

Aside from Christmas Eve, the next busiest day at the store was the day after Christmas when people lined up to return gifts. Comments ranged from "I haven't worn this size in years" to "Whatever was he thinking?" to "What do you mean it was a sale item?"

What struck me the most about the whole experience was all the time and energy that had been wasted and how everyone seemed to be stressed out and unhappy because of it.

But I also remember the fun my sister and I had as children when Christmas gifts and Christmas shopping were the best of times. We would carefully count our money, figure out what we could buy with it, pick out pretty wrapping paper, and help each other put bows on the packages. By Christmas Eve we were too excited to sleep for wondering what gifts Santa would leave for us and wanting to see the expressions on the faces of our parents and grandparents when they opened our gifts.

My conflicting memories make me wonder how gift giving fits into the celebration of Christ's birth. The tradition of Christmas gift giving offers so much potential to be a symbol of the Christian message—to give something precious to someone you love.

Many people argue that Christmas has become too commercial, too secular, and that our society is too materialistic; some of the harshest critics seem to suggest that we should almost eliminate gift giving altogether. But suppose for a moment that gift giving has a legitimate place in religious observance. What role should we assign it? What are the best gifts that we can give each other?

The many instances of gift giving in the Bible answer these questions. Let's look first at some of the gifts God gives to us. As the Dictionary of Biblical Theology points out, it is God who takes the initiative for creation and gives all humankind nourishment and life. Psalm 104, verse 24, proclaims: "How manifold are your works, 0 Lord! In wisdom you have wrought them all—the earth is full of your creatures." Through Moses God gave the law to the people (Deut. 5:1-22), which was the gift beyond all others because it is a participation in God's own wisdom (Deut. 4:5-8).

Gifts in the Bible are described as spiritual intangibles: Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are God's gifts to humankind, Christ gives his life so that we may live (we are reminded of this by the offering of symbolic gifts of bread and wine every Sunday at Mass), and the Holy Spirit's gifts include wisdom, knowledge, faith, and understanding (to name a few).

Saint Paul, speaking to the Corinthians, defines love as the greatest gift of all and says that giving without love is meaningless: "If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing symbol..." (1 Cor. 13:1).

The love that Paul describes is a spiritual, unconditional love that seeks nothing in return. Paul also goes on to rank other spiritual gifts. For example, the gift of prophecy is considered to be a greater gift than the gift of tongues because the gift of prophecy tends to benefit the whole community (the church) whereas the gift of tongues only benefits the individual.

Saint Luke reminds us that we will receive what we give to others: "Give and there will be gifts for you; a full measure pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back" (Luke 6:38). It is the "reap what you sow" argument, but it seems to allude to intangible (i.e., psychological and spiritual) and perhaps even heavenly rewards rather than a quid-pro-quo arrangement. In fact, gifts that were intended as bribes are sharply condemned in the Bible (Exod. 23:8, Isa. 5:23).

Because Jesus gave his life for us, a person who gives a gift shows thanks to God more than the receiver of the gift because he or she knows that generosity is a grace (2 Cor. 8:1), a fruit of the love that comes from God (1 John 3:14-18). This is why Jesus said that it is "more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).

So, how can these Bible messages be translated into the practice of giving Christmas gifts? When Christmas gift giving gets truly out of hand and the Christmas season becomes the worst of times, the act of giving becomes an obligation: "She buys me something every Christmas, so I have to get her something." Or giving becomes a form of bribery; it's a way to appease personal guilt for not having spent enough time with someone and a way to win affection: "I missed his ball games because I had to work, so maybe I can make it up to him by giving him something really nice this Christmas."

If we listen to the words of the Bible, however, and consider gift giving from a more spiritual perspective, the best gift we can give someone is to give of ourselves and to make sure that our motivation is love and not guilt or self-interest.

Rose Kennedy, on the occasion of her 103rd birthday, reportedly asked her family to give her only gifts that they could make themselves. In response, her son wrote her a poem.

Giving in the most Christian sense of the word also means giving freely of our time, our talents, and our understanding. (Paul also refers to individual talents, such as the ability to teach, as "gifts" from God that we are meant to share.)

In practical terms, some appropriate ways to give something to older people might be to take them to a ball game, a play, or out to dinner; fix a broken faucet, weed the garden, or paint the garage; or pay their tuition for a class that they've always wanted to take; but most of all, see them often and listen to them as much  as possible.

For parents with young children, the best gift might be an offer to babysit so that they can spend some time alone together. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations.

Some of the best gifts that I've ever received have been symbolic reminders of my relationship to the giver. Not long after my father died, my mother gave my sister and me each a necklace that was made from a set of cuff links that she had given my father as a wedding gift. My necklace is lovely in itself, but what makes it especially precious to me is that it is a constant reminder of the love my parents had for each other and then shared with my sister and me.

One of the most eloquent thank-you notes I ever received was from a friend who had recently lost a parent; she thanked me for spending time with her, sharing my common experiences with her, and for listening. In so doing, she helped me to understand what she needed most as well as what I could give her in the future.

So how does this all relate to spending time, money, and energy at Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom?

There's no need to ban material gifts altogether—even Nativity scenes depict the Magi bringing gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold to the Christ child—but we need to remember that the packages that we place under the tree are only symbols; they are just a kind of window dressing and are relatively unimportant.

What matters most is what is in our hearts: we must try to give from a sense of unconditional love, give of ourselves freely, and continually try to keep the spirit of giving alive—in the best and the worst of times. That is the example that God gave us when he gave us the gift of life; that is the example Christ set for us when he lived as a person among us; and that is the example the community of faithful strives to follow when it does the work of Christ.

One of Dickens' most famous characters, Ebeneezer Scrooge, perhaps says it best after he repents his miserly and selfish ways in A Christmas Carol: "I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year."

Image: Flickr photo cc by Joe Buckingham

Read more articles from past issues here: From the U.S. Catholic archives