Why Give Gifts at Christmas?


With this kind of title, you may think I’m asking a redundant question, expecting you to read a blog post that will answer why it is good to give gifts at Christmas. Well, just like realizing that Santa didn’t get you what you really wanted, I’m sorry to disappoint. I really, truly, want to know why there is such an expectation that we give and receive gifts at Christmas.

Now, if you're the kind of person who simply delights in all things Christmas and has never had a problem with the season, please click away. I don’t want to scrooge your holidays. But over the past few years I have really started to question what Christmas is all about. Let me explain.

I have wonderful parents, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve really started to understand the extent of their sacrifice to bring joy to us as kids. When I was younger I thought my parents had enough to give me what I wanted. And so, when Christmas rolled around, my wish list was huge. I remember looking through flyers, dreaming about all the things I wanted to get. 

I remember the anticipation leading up to Christmas, but I also remember two feelings after opening presents on Christmas day. First, disappointment if I didn’t get what I wanted, and second, excitement and then disappointment if I got what I wanted but then realized what I wanted wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

I should be clear that either way, the gifts I got didn’t affect my feelings toward my family or what I thought they felt about me. In fact, the older I became, the more I realized that what really made me feel valued and loved at Christmas was being with family, doing things together like playing music at a nursing home, and remembering the story of Jesus’ birth.

Now that I'm in my late twenties, I wonder where my expectations around Christmas came from. I understand my birthday, a day when everyone celebrates me (even though it was my mother that gave birth to me!), but why do I also receive presents at Christmas, when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday? I never expected to get presents on my brother’s birthdays.

Here’s what I’ve been told:

  1. Christmas is a reminder about generosity and thankfulness. God gave His only son for us as the best gift humanity has ever gotten. That was the greatest display of generosity ever. And so we're also called to be generous and to give, and one way we do this is by giving gifts to each other. Just like the wisemen, right?
  2. Christmas is a time for us to remember what is really important. It's a time to spend with family and loved ones, to remind people that we care for them. When we give gifts, we show our love for each other by putting a smile on their faces. We also feel good when we give. It brings joy to us to see other people happy.

I get all of that. And I think it is generous to spend money on other people. I think it can bring joy to them and ourselves. But have you ever wondered what to get someone who seems to have everything they need or want, because you feel obligated to get them something? You think if you don't they might get you something, and that would mean they showed you love and you didn’t do the same.

Or have you ever had the experience where someone didn’t receive joy along with your gift? Just last week, we did a gift exchange game, and the person who ended up with my gift exclaimed “Uhh, I don’t want this.” I think it'll take him some time to appreciate the benefits of a picnic blanket, but nonetheless, I was able to not take it too personally.

When we think of Santa Claus, maybe we think of the Coca-Cola version who gets gifts for all the good boys and girls in the world. But many of us know that Santa is actually based on a real person. The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a Christian bishop born in the 3rd century who was known for his generosity; but not to all people, only the poor.

That’s exactly what we’ve been missing. Christmas is a time for generosity, and that generosity is best displayed by giving to those who don’t have. Jesus’ birth isn't a model for buying the latest and greatest stuff the world has to offer. It’s a model of selflessness for those who really need it, just like we really need Jesus. Sure, presents can bring us joy, but I guarantee you will receive much more joy when you feed an empty stomach than when you give another toy. 

Since when did our love for family and friends get valued in the things we buy for them? Well, since our culture told us so. Consumerism and materialism have convinced us that we need the latest and greatest things, and that we find worth in money and possessions. Advertising plays with our minds and convinces us that we will only be truly happy if we have this or that.

That is such a dangerous message for our children and families. Even more confusing is to fuse the celebration of Jesus’ birthday with all of this. I don’t know if I believe these numbers, but an average Canadian will spend around $1,800 on Christmas. Imagine if instead we gave that much to our local food banks or homeless shelters, development organizations or abuse prevention programs. Imagine if, like St. Nicholas, we aimed our generosity not at ourselves and those who have more than they need, but at those who have little to nothing.

So, am I saying that we shouldn’t buy gifts at Christmas? Well, maybe. That doesn’t mean I’m against presents, but there are other opportunities in the year for us to give and receive. Why does Jesus’ birthday have to be one of them? In fact, if we really feel like we need to give gifts, why not (as a way to spite the system) only go out during boxing week and buy things that are on sale? Keep Christmas about Jesus and the kind generosity that He embodied.

Don’t worry, I’ve already bought some gifts for people this Christmas. I don’t think I could've gotten away with not buying them. At least not yet. But what if we limit ourselves? What if, like my family suggested this year, we make things for each other, simply spend time together, give generously to those in need, and just celebrate the birth of the greatest gift of all?