What do you get for somebody who has everything?
Choosing Christmas gifts is one of the most torturous social exercises known to humankind. It’s our own fault that it has become that way; we’ve so numbed ourselves to simple gratitude that we make people jump through hoops just to give us something. What if the gift I buy is too big? What if they spend more on their gift for me than I do on my gift for them? And the granddaddy question of gift-giving: What if they don’t like it?
Here’s the answer. It was a gift. You cross them off your list of people that you give gifts to and warn your friends about their lack of gratitude. Oh, wait, we don’t do that. We try harder the next year, probably even worrying more about it.
There almost aren’t words for how far from the “spirit of Christmas” our gift giving and getting have brought us. For example, there wasn’t ever supposed to be a “spirit of Christmas.” It was just supposed to be the new way to live. But instead, we’ve sold ourselves a lie at Christmas. It was easy to do, too; we like the lie. It makes Christmas about us.
To unpack the lie at Christmas, we’re forced to use our own Christmas terminology to see if we can sift some meaning out of the holiday. Which leads to an unusual question: What would Jesus want for Christmas? Not baby Jesus; this-year Jesus. It seems a shame to leave him off the gift list.
My wife Britta and I have a delightfully imperfect history of gift giving—occasionally forgetting, sometimes overdoing, at times simply agreeing to let a holiday pass ungifted. I remember once when we were dating, I arrived to pick her up for a Valentine’s date. I was invited in; I gave her flowers and sat down. She went back to her room and produced a wrapped gift and a card for me. I opened the gift, which was a CD I already had in my collection (a detail I kept to myself). I read the card. Hugs. And then she asked: “Where is my present?” I had no present. Tears. A long discussion followed, ending with a list of holidays at which we, as a couple, should expect to give and receive a gift and a card from each other.
In my defense, I’ll point out that it was our fifth Valentine’s Day together, and there had never been presents, nor cards. Always flowers, always a date; never cards, never presents.
It gets better. Three months later, in May, my birthday came and went with no card or present from Britta. In fact, there was no “happy birthday” or any other acknowledgment that I had aged. I was puzzled, but I let it slide. I waited nearly two months, and finally in mid-July I asked, “Hey, umm, it’s no big deal, really, but, umm… did you forget my birthday?”
Tears again. She hadn’t forgotten it. She wasn’t sure what to get me, and then as my birthday got closer she realized she didn’t have any money, and she was embarrassed not to have a gift after making such a big deal of things at Valentine’s Day. So she did the only sensible thing: stand very still and hope that I forgot my own birthday.
It was never about the gifts. Britta just wanted to know that she was special to me, highlighted by a little extra care a few times a year. And I just wanted to know that she loved me. We could have made it about the gifts; we could have decided how many and what kind and how much to spend. But somewhere in there, we probably would have forgotten that love started the whole thing.
Which is what we all do, to some degree, at Christmas. When we give Christmas gifts to people, do we intend for those gifts to show our love or Christ’s love? Sometimes we can do both, but I think when most of us give gifts, we get the majority of the credit.
How can we give ourselves back to God at Christmas?
The parables of Jesus provide fascinating insights into the mind of Jesus. In them we walk through his deeper motivations in ministry, digging in to what really mattered to Jesus. In Matthew 25:31-46, a passage we looked at in the previous chapter, Jesus got to the heart of how we are to live in service to each other. In this parable, Jesus welcomed a group into his kingdom, thanking them for all the times they fed him, clothed him, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him while he was in prison. The group was grateful but confused. “When did we do those things?” they asked. Jesus pointed out that anytime they did those things for people in need, it was as though they were doing the things for him.
Then Jesus turned and rejected another group, because they did not come to his aid to feed him, clothe him, care for him, or visit him in prison. Equally surprised, the group asked when they had ignored Jesus on each of those occasions. Jesus’ answer still cuts deeply: Anytime we do not do those things for someone in need, it is as though we have not done them for Jesus. Ouch.
Don’t sink into a deep depression about all the times throughout the year that you’ve left Jesus hungry, without clothing, sick, or unvisited. Just look ahead to this coming Christmas. You’ll find loads of opportunities all around you. There are hungry people, people in need of shelter and clothing, people who are sick and in prison.
Christmas, as we’ve made it, no longer carries the message of God’s love for people in need. If that’s how we as Christians intend to leave it, then it’s probably time to close up shop. It’s one thing to stop caring about “the least of these”; it’s quite another to make a mockery of the process in doing so.
At this point, it’s probably too late to go back the way we came. Christmas no longer fits in the box we’re carrying, so maybe it’s time to find a new box.
Our Christmas is all about us; the coming Christ child is all about everyone else. Our Christmas emphasizes a warm, familiar story; Jesus emphasizes a hard look at how we’ve been living our lives for ourselves and how we can change to be more open to others. Our Christmas says, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without…”; while Jesus reminds us that no one should ever be without.
We’ve got to peel back the layers we’ve added, not to get to the center but simply to get rid of the layers. We’re in a time of year when people are taking stock of things and gearing up to make New Year’s resolutions. Think about the kinds of things people usually give up or commit to: less spending, less eating, more exercise, and on and on. Does that sound anything like the existence we’re called to as disciples of Jesus—capping off a year’s worth of overeating and self-indulgence with a year-end selfishness supernova before “getting back to the basics” of not gorging ourselves to death and joining a gym in January? Well done, good and faithful servant.
I don’t remember what year it was that my wife and I decided we weren’t going to do Santa Claus for our two boys, Grey and Penner. It seems like Grey was probably three going on four, and Penner would have been too young to care. We knew it would be an uphill battle with a lot of people, family included. In case you’re unaware of it, people get really uptight when you take away one of society’s sacred cows, especially if it’s one where for some reason we’ve decided it’s okay to lie to children. I remember my wife Britta saying at one point, “You know, I think it would be easier if we just told people we were converting to Judaism.”
My argument for doing away with Santa was pretty simple. Setting aside all the consumer greed and corporate manipulation for a moment, I was concerned that when our boys became old enough to realize we’d made up the nice man nobody ever sees who brings them gifts at Christmas, they might also start wondering if we’d made up the God nobody ever sees who supposedly loves them. Or worse, that they’d project their ideas about Santa onto God, making God the invisible gimmie-machine.
Britta has developed a better and less cynical approach. (It’s like a superpower she has.) She’s the children’s director at the same church where I work, and she regularly bites her tongue to keep from accidentally throwing Santa under the bus in front of our church kids. Britta had been trying to figure out how to deal with the issue of Santa Claus at church, when she heard a story that she found helpful. It seems that some parents had brought their family to America, and they were wondering if they should speak English at home and teach their native tongue to their kids as a second language. They received some great advice: At home, speak only in your native tongue, because your kids will hear English everywhere else.
Perfect. Applied to the children at church, it means that during Christmas our leaders only talk about Jesus. The kids will get Santa everywhere else—even at home, for most of them.
Can you imagine a Christmas that was just about Jesus? That would be a different road. A real Christmas miracle. Let’s find new ways to reach out to Jesus. It’s all he wants for Christmas.
This article is excerpted from A Different Kind of Christmas: Living and Giving Like Jesus, a companion study to Christmas is Not Your Birthday, by Mike Slaughter (Abingdon, 2011).