This year, the Houston Astros won the World Series. It was a big deal! (If you know me or my husband, you also know it is a big deal that we even know this information!) Although we’re not a sports family, we’re native Houstonians. We both grew up going to ‘Stros games. On top of that, our city had just suffered a massive tragedy, the Hurricane Harvey flood. So for several reasons, their victory was personal to us and many others.
The Astros win was a cause of great celebration in our city! One way people celebrated was buying gifts for each other: Astros jerseys, Astros paraphernalia, commemorative bottles of wine, posters, etc. When you can’t give gifts to the team itself, you give gifts to each other as a way of celebrating your communal joy in someone else’s win.
For a long time I struggled with why I should give other people gifts on Jesus’ birthday. If it’s His birthday, shouldn’t we be giving Him things? Acts of service, giving to the poor, donating money? While those are legitimate ways to honor Jesus at Christmas, exchanging gifts has always been a normal way to celebrate a mutual joy. This is the purpose behind Christmas gifts: a way of celebrating our corporate joy in Someone Else’s victory.
For Christians, we are celebrating that God has found a way to redeem us, to save us! And it began in the manger as Jesus descended to our level to live out a righteousness we could never attain. Jesus did for us the one thing God requires of us: He lived perfectly, from the womb to the tomb, without sin, without failure, without flaw. Where we failed, He succeeded. Where we sinned, He obeyed. Where we lost, He was victorious! And in our joy at receiving His gift of righteousness we give gifts to one another. Yes, gift giving can be a right response to a heart full of gratitude for the birth of Christ.
Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel. - Isaiah 44:23
KEEPING THE FOCUS ON JESUS
Even as we have continued the tradition of giving gifts to one another on Christmas, Jimmy and I have tried to let our gift-giving be arrow pointing to a greatest gift. We desire Jesus to be the central character in our Christmas celebrations. Here are a few ways we do that.
1. Refrain from Excess
It’s easy to go overboard with the gift giving, especially with your kids. But we’ve realized our kids have more joy in their lives with fewer toys and more imagination. We want them to have the most joy possible, and overloading them with things never produces the long-lasting joy we want for them. We usually get them at least 1 item that is just something they really want and would delight in. The rest of their gifts are often needs they have (new clothes or shoes), experiences (tickets to a show or an annual membership to the zoo), or replacements of older items (new markers, new coloring books).
This doesn’t just apply to kids though. There are a lot of people in my extended family and buying a gift for everyone just isn’t feasible for us some years. And honestly, we all have everything we need. So some years we draw names and buy for just one person. This year, each person is bringing one nice $40 item for a gift exchange. It makes for a fun game and great memories and allows us to keep our Christmas celebration about enjoying each other, not the gifts.
However you do gifts, keep it simple. But I know there are some of you out there (you know who you are), that are hard-wired gift givers! Your natural way to express your love for others is to get them gifts. Don’t let what I’m saying put a damper on that. If you delight in giving gifts and God has given you the funds to do so, go for it.
2. Make the Gifts Point to Jesus
There are several ways we do this. First, before our kids open a gift, we ask them: “Why do we give gifts on Christmas?” And they respond, “Because Jesus is the greatest gift!” We hope this simple repetition will remind them that the birth of Jesus is more than a historical fact, that it is a HUGE gift of God! One day, we hope the gift of Jesus in their life will produce an even deeper joy and excitement than the gift they are opening.
We also let our kids open their gifts from us before December 25. They get to open one each Advent Sunday after we light our candle and do our family reading and singing. (If you need a good children’s advent program, “Everyday Emmanuel” is a great one.) Again, this helps associate gift-giving as a response to what Jesus did.
But there is another benefit. By the time we get to Christmas, our kids have already received quite a bit. So it’s easier to make Christmas Day truly about Jesus, not about them. If we decide to help feed the homeless that morning, our kids aren’t upset because they’ve waited a month to open their gifts. They’ve already received a lot. If we ask for their help in the kitchen, they aren’t bitter because this is their one big day of presents. Of course, they will have gifts to open on Christmas morning from grandparents and other extended family and a couple small ones from us. But spreading it out helps take some of the pressure off this day to be perfect for them.
As you might have guessed, this means we don’t do the Santa thing on Christmas morning. This isn’t because we think it is wrong, but because we’ve found that doing things differently has actually produced more joy and harmony in our family. It also gives us a chance to talk about the historical person of Saint Nicolas and honor him by giving gifts to others who are less fortunate than us as he did.
3. Use Gifts as a Form of Evangelism
Since gift giving is a normal American expression of Christmas, it provides an easy in for Gospel conversations. We like to buy a little something for neighbors and friends in our community who don’t know God yet. It allows us to tell them why the birth of Jesus is such a big deal to us. We try to use every opportunity to share the Gospel will our top 5, those we are praying will one day trust in Jesus as their savior. And Christmas gift-giving is a great opportunity!
4. Make Christmas a Birthday Party for Jesus
If there’s one thing kids understand, it’s birthdays. They know exactly how they work. There will be cake and ice cream. There will be presents for the birthday kid. And it will be fun! So when you tell kids Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birthday, do the same things. Make a birthday cake for Jesus on Christmas. Sing happy birthday to Him and light candles on the cake. Buy ice cream for it. Find a way to give gifts to Jesus. And make it fun.
How can you give a gift to Jesus? Well, in Matthew 25 Jesus gives us a specific list of ways to give to Him:
Then the [Son of Man] will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' —Matthew 25:34-40
Read this passage to your kids and let them help you decide how you can give a gift to Jesus by serving someone less fortunate than yourself. Is a neighbor, friend, or family member sick? Go visit them and pray for them. Find a way to feed someone who is homeless or make gift baskets for a local women’s shelter. Join Bill & Denise Stewart in handing out bags to the homeless in Ft. Worth on Christmas morning.
The ideas I shared might not work for your family. And that’s ok. There is no one “right” way to do Christmas. But whatever you do, be intentional. Don’t just do what the world does or what your family did growing up. Ask yourself, how can I give gifts to the glory of God? How can I turn the eyes of my kids, my neighbors, my family and friends to Jesus this Christmas? How can I turn their gaze to the gift of the humble, servant God-man who came to live righteously because we had no hope to be righteous ourselves.