December 22, 2005

A Doozy of a Gift

1548 page17 caps Christmas nears I hurtle into the holiday spirit and all of its accoutrements. My season begins in November, or on the first day I smell wood burning in a fireplace. I pull out Christmas CDs and play them, one after the other. I grade papers while I?m dreaming of a ?White Christmas,? wash dishes to the ?Hallelujah Chorus,? and jog to Band Aid?s ?Do They Know It?s Christmas??

I love Christmas because it taps into my inner child. It?s a joyful holiday, arriving at the cusp of winter. The early darkness is illuminated by tiny, impractical lights. Homes smell of cinnamon and fir trees. And people are quick to smile, quick to wish their neighbors merriment and peace.

1548 page17Christmas is the celebration of wonder and optimism and humility. God--so formidable that mortals would perish from beholding His full glory1--came to live on earth. Jesus was held by His creation, cared for by a love He had invented. The Omnipotent became a child and restored hope to a doomed planet.

Christmas is a religious holiday, but it has also become a commercial phenomenon. As recorded in Matthew, the Magi brought the Christ child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, starting a tradition of generosity.

Our present-day custom of exchanging gifts stems also from the story of Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop from Myra.2 There is little historical record about Nicholas, but there are many legends. One is that the bishop helped three sisters who did not have a dowry. When each was to be married, Nicholas came at night and threw a bag of gold into the family?s home--hence the origin of Santa Claus.

Gift giving is a part of the season?s cheer. We return from the store radiating mischievous stealth. We lock doors, ban relatives from certain rooms, and then triumphantly place packages under the tree. It?s fun to shop for a present, wrap it with a quirky flair, and then watch as someone opens it.

But as enjoyable as it is to give (and receive) presents, the consumerism is troubling. What, we ask in all sincerity, do you get the person who has everything? Stores are happy to provide the answer. They suggest everything from a ?whimsy tree cake stand? to a ?curved shower rod? to ?mini cheesecake dippers? to ?the amazing tie winder gift.?3 A holy day has been turned into shopping frenzy. Generosity and goodwill have been manipulated into spending money for the sake of spending money.

Today, Santa Claus sits in most U.S. shopping malls and asks children what they want for Christmas. Jingles are piped into stores, urging customers to buy, buy, buy. And TV commercials feature the dewy smiles of people who have just unwrapped the perfect present.

Though some might disagree, I don?t believe you can buy the perfect gift--no matter how much thought goes into a present or how much money. Material goods cannot bring peace or satisfaction.

In Finland this summer, my cousin?s young daughter taught me about gift giving. Janna had come into the possession of three postcards. She took the cards to her grandparents? house and began to give them away.

?Riikka gets this one,? she said, bouncing over to her aunt and handing her a card.

?Riku gets this one,? she said, handing her uncle a card.

?And Mummi gets this one,? she said, handing her grandmother the final card.

Now empty-handed, Janna turned to her grandfather. Instead of feeling anxious, Janna smiled even wider. She threw open her arms and shouted ?And Ukki gets me? as she leaped into his lap.4

Guess who was the most pleased with their present?

While exchanging gifts is a way to express affection and appreciation, Christmas is not about shopping or material goods. Consumerism is a distortion of the Christmas spirit. Christmas is about a greater benevolence. It?s about God giving Himself to humanity. And it?s about humanity giving itself back to God.

Merry Christmas and peace to all!

1 See Ex. 33:18-23. Moses waited in the cleft of a rock, and as God passed, He covered the opening to protect Moses? life.
2 A town in present-day Turkey.
3 For the person who has everything, I recommend ADRA?s really useful gift catalog:
4 Ukki means grandfather in Finnish, and Mummi means grandmother. Riikka and Riku are names.

Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree from the University of Minnesota. Her e-mail address is [email protected].