Back in the 90s the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman came out. The ideas in that book are something I still hear people talk about today. The premise is that people express and receive love in five key different ways. They include words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. I remember first reading this list and being a little bit repulsed by the receiving gifts one. It seemed to me such a selfish, materially focused way of wanting to be loved. Yet as I read the book and reflected on the ways that I have most felt loved, I was shocked to discover that receiving gifts actually was my primary love language. Yikes!
I think many of us feel a hint of this same repulsion at the gift giving that goes on at Christmas. I think as Christians, we want the focus of the Christmas season to be spiritual. We want it to be a time of appreciating the wonder of the incarnation and not fall into the trap of consumerism and the desire for material things. However so much of the lead up to Christmas can be focused on buying, making, decorating and preparing things that it feels that’s where all our energy goes. Already by mid-November I’m having conversations in the school playground about how people are going with their present buying. And they are always conversations peppered by groans! There’s a certain pressure that comes with thinking of a gift for everyone you need to buy for (and sometimes their dog!). There’s the concern we have to not contribute to plastic waste, to buy ethically made items, to not go overboard and make our children greedy and to not gift something that’s unwanted and going to be unappreciated. And even more so if your love language is gifts! It’s tempting to want to toss the whole thing in and propose a Christmas with no gifts and without all that stress, waste and consumerism.
So, is anything lost without the gifts? Why do we give them at Christmas anyway? Should we just do away with the presents? Gift giving is a part of nearly every human culture throughout history. There is evidence even cavemen gave each other gifts. It seems to be something almost built into our DNA, by being made in the image of the gift-giving God. Jesus himself comments on how gift giving is an inclination of the human heart, even in our fallen state (Matt 7:11, Luke 11:13). Exchanging gifts has been linked to Christmas since around the fourth century, tied to either the biblical account of the gifts of the Magi or the story of the gift-giving bishop Saint Nicholas. Likely both the tradition-keeping element and the societal expectation that Great Aunt Sheila will be waiting for her package of embroidered handkerchiefs will drive us to continue. But I can think of a few other reasons why we should want to embrace gift giving at Christmas, regardless of our love language.
Firstly, Christmas really is all about a gift. At Christmas we celebrate that incredible moment when the gift of the new covenant begins to be unwrapped in the birth of a saviour. This is the most glorious and magnificent gift this world will ever see. As Paul describes it in Romans 5:15,
‘But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!’
And again in 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life inChrist Jesus our Lord.’
In our celebrations we want to somehow express how precious and life changing that gift is. And I think the wide scale exchanging of gifts somehow does this. We are sure to be explicit about this reason with our kids. It’s not like a birthday, where just one person is showered with gifts. It’s all encompassing. We are all giving and receiving gifts and that somehow that enlarges our joy. I love that moment when all the gifts have been opened on Christmas Day and each person has a little pile and a smile of satisfaction on their face. Just as the righteousness of God overflows to many, so on this day do the physical gifts.
This wide scale giving captures something else of the gospel-shaped life too. From their youngest days we make sure our kids are giving gifts at Christmas, not just receiving them. We know that it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). We give to our family and friends to show something of the extravagant way in which God has given to us. Our God is not stingy, not mean hearted, but open handed, gracious and generous. We reflect something of his character in the joyful giving to others we show, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. As redeemed people, shown so much mercy and kindness, we are to be overflowing with the grace he has given to us. As we seek to love others, one expression of this will be in gift giving.
Finally, to refrain from gift giving might arise from despising the material over the spiritual, distaining so much the consumerism of our culture that we forget the goodness of creation (1 Tim 4:4). But Christmas is really the perfect picture of when the spiritual and material meet. The eternal Word became a flesh-and-blood baby. To rid Christmas of the material could somehow deny this most significant of moments, where the spiritual and the material meet in a little boy child. Where the Creator entered his creation. We don’t want to buy into materialism (and we can certainly give gifts that are experiences rather than plastic), but let’s not fall the other way and somehow deny that this creation is good. It is not somehow more spiritual to abandon a material celebration of the season.
This year, I am seeking to embrace gift giving. Rather than allowing the stress of the process to overwhelm me, I’m praying I will use this opportunity of celebration to be filled with joy at what God has done for me. I’m hoping my gifts will be visible and tangible evidence of the love I have for those I give them to, reflecting the love I have been shown in Christ. And I’m taking the opportunity to marvel at the incarnation as I seek to appreciate both the spiritual and material realities that this season presents. Merry Christmas!