by Rev. Christopher Lewis,
Nothing is Impossible Ministries
“I wonder what kind of presents will be under the tree this Christmas!” As a little boy, this was a question that energized me during this season as the big day approached. There were many things I enjoyed about Christmas, including the story of the Baby whose birthday was to be remembered on that day, but I have to admit the thing that excited me most about the holiday when I was a child was the prospect of receiving presents.
Have you ever stopped to wonder, however, why many of us exchange gifts on Christmas? What is the meaning of this custom?
I have heard many explanations. One is that the tradition started with the magi when they came to Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Another is that the giving of gifts to one another is a representation of the fact that God gave us His Supreme Gift in the form of His Son. These explanations sound good and actually do have some merit when it comes to understanding what we are doing from a Christian perspective. However, they are not the real story.
The giving of gifts during this time actually dates back to the ancient Roman Empire and its annual celebration of a festival called Saturnalia. This holiday began in 217B.C. in honor of the god Saturn and included the custom of making and giving small presents. The festival was originally celebrated on December 17th and later extended to the whole week of December 17th through 23rd.
The Christian holiday of Christmas started to be celebrated by some in the 4th Century AD and eventually became prominent across Christendom by the 9th Century. For a while the giving of gifts was banned by the Catholic Church because of the practice’s pagan origins, but by sometime in the Middle Ages it became a regular part of the holiday.
Regardless of the tradition’s origins, however, the giving of gifts was eventually adopted by the Christians and, when practiced unselfishly, can reflect the giving nature of God in a profound way. As is the case with many things, though this tradition had its roots elsewhere, God can take an idea and give it new life and meaning through His Son, Jesus Christ.
I do think, however, that the key to gift giving is all about motives. When we give and receive out of selfishness and make the exchange of presents the primary focus of the holiday, I fear we revert to the pagan origins of this tradition and forget all about Christ. On the other hand, when we give out of the motives of Christ-filled love, I am convinced that our giving can truly reflect the heart of God.
According to Acts 20:35, Jesus once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” When we find the simple joy of giving to someone out of love, we prove the validity of this statement. NIV
Jesus also said that the whole purpose of God’s Law is fulfilled when we love God with all our heart, soul and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-40). One very profound thing this tells us is that the primary motive for everything in the life of a follower of Jesus should be love. When any other motivator takes first place in life, everything gets off track and Jesus takes a back seat in our dealings. As we prepare for the opportunity we have this Christmas to give, not just material gifts but also our time and energy, this season gives us a great opportunity to take a step back and examine our own motives.
I have noticed at least four primary motives that seem to guide a lot of Christians in America. Each one of these motives can potentially be unearthed in the way we approach the holiday.
Many Christians are really in it only for what they can get for themselves. They go to church looking for something that will make them feel better about their lives and give them the emotional or spiritual strength to do whatever they need to do the rest of the week. Self-seeking Christians often become “church-hoppers.” Their most common reason for leaving a church is that they are not “being fed” or “getting what they need” from the church.
The self-seeking Christian’s attitude can often be unmasked during this season because he or she approaches the holiday with the same attitude. This Christian is most concerned with what he can get out of the holiday and will become very discouraged if things don’t go the way he wants them to. He may be disappointed if he doesn’t receive the gifts he wants, or he may be more disappointed if he doesn’t get the attention he would like from family members or friends. For this person, “It’s all about me.”
Another powerful motivator for many people in life is anger. An angry person has a hard time seeing the good in anything and will tend to spend more time feeling angry at the crowds in the shopping malls than looking for ways to bless others. Even in the giving of gifts, such a person may look for a way to “prove a point” to someone or may withhold gifts from people who have made him or her particularly angry recently.
Another powerful motivator in America is politics. A political Christian is the one who will often use the Christmas gathering to start arguments about politics instead of focusing on how to show God’s love to everyone. It may seem strange to mention this, but for some reason Christmas time is one during which many politically motivated Christians become the least gracious. Perhaps this is because they often have a captive audience in the form of their family and friends on Christmas Day.
What the politically motivated Christian needs to remember, however, is that the season is about Jesus and most assuredly not about their political heroes or enemies. If you really want to represent Jesus to your family and friends, what you do have to do is love everyone, regardless of whether you agree with their politics. Your favorite politician or political party is not the savior of the world. Only Jesus is, so let’s focus on Him this season!
Yeah, this is the one that really matters. I am happy to say that, though I have met many misguided Christians who have put other motivations above the love of God, I have also met many who really know what it’s all about. They put aside their own selfish agendas, they let God heal their anger through forgiveness, and they are gracious enough to accept that not everybody is going to agree with their politics and ideologies. They love everyone with unconditional love, and they look past all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to the Christ-child whose birth is remembered on that day. And when they look at that child, they ask themselves, “How can I reflect the life that child grew up to live?” Then, whether they have money to give fancy presents or not, they give the most precious gift of all … the gift of love.
I’m glad to say that I no longer approach this season obsessed with the thought, “I wonder what will be under the tree!” Instead, I try to focus on the people who will be sitting around that tree, as well as the people in the community who won’t have a tree. Then I ask, “What can I give, and how can I love them?” That’s really what this giving thing is all about.