Christmas is about Presents: Let me explain...
By Dr. Chris Pipkin
At one point or another in life, if you are not very careful, you will probably find yourself associated with a school play. This is especially true if you are in school, as I was at some indistinct point between the eighties and nineties when Culpeper Christian Elementary and Middle School staged a Christmas musical about a family who went somewhere or other for Christmas but forgot to bring presents and learned in the end that the presents were not as important as they thought.
Now, the weird thing is that I forget how I was involved. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t acting in the play, which means I was either in the choir or band. I remember singing or maybe just hearing the songs several times and can to this day repeat the lyrics from such notable pieces as “You Can’t Have Christmas Without Presents” and “Christmas is a Time to Love.” As far as I can remember, this play taught us basically the same thing we would have learned if we had stayed home and watched Garfield’s Christmas or National Lampoon’s Christmas on TV—albeit with fewer good jokes and a Jesus-y veneer that justified the whole endeavor to the well-meaning and patient adults behind the curtain and in the audience. And they say Christians don’t suffer for their art.
All that to say, it is interesting how anti-consumerist most Christmas movies, specials, songs, plays, rock operas, and other productions tend to be. Christmas, they all maintain, is not about gifts. It’s about people.
And that sort of sentiment, coming around this time of year, would be absolutely lovely and meaningful and welcome if we didn’t all know in our heart of hearts that it was completely wrong.
Christmas is about presents.
There, I said it. Now, let me explain.
The choice between loved ones and presents is a false choice. This is because gifts, when they work the right way, reinforce bonds between people.
This doesn’t mean they are more important than the people who give them to you, or even that Christmas is chiefly a time in which you are showered with all the stuff you want. In fact, a big part of what we want to do with this project is to empower people to make their Christmas less consumerist and more meaningful.
The choice isn’t really between stuff and people, but between giving and not giving. Even in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t condemned for being greedy so much as for being a miser. He wants to hoard his money. To spend it on gifts—and receive gifts in turn--is to become vulnerable to others, and to spend time and resources on relationships rather than self-determination.
"This is because gifts, when they work the right way, reinforce bonds between people."
Scrooge has a literary ancestor named Heremod in the poem Beowulf. He is a king everyone in the poem knows about who once (before Beowulf’s time) refused to give and came to a bad end as a result. After young Beowulf risks his life for King Hrothgar (and Hrothgar gives him lots of presents), Hrothgar tells him not to be like Heremod, who hoarded his treasure rather than giving it out freely. In Beowulf, and generally speaking in all pre-modern cultures, gifts were a kind of insurance. Kings gave out gifts to their subjects in order to ensure that when they really needed their subjects to step up (say in war, or in the—it turns out—very likely event of a monster attack), those subjects would recall how readily they received treasures from their lords and do their part. And this, of course, raises modern eyebrows. “Wait a minute,” we say, “so the kings who gave stuff away weren’t really any different from Scrooge or Heremod—just smarter. They were all just looking out for themselves, right? I mean, it’s just as selfish to give stuff away so that people will stand by you when you need them as it is to refuse to give stuff away.”
But that misses the point. It’s not a question of being selfish or not, but rather a question of having a happy human life within a society that functions as it should. And a happy society—where people are in dynamic and meaningful relationship with each other—is characterized by giving. When he receives treasures from King Hrothgar (which were themselves gifts to Hrothgar at some point), Beowulf goes home and straightaway gives them to his own liege-lord, King Hygelac. The point seems to be, as much as possible, to keep treasure circulating, like blood being pumped by a heart. Beowulf and other Old English poems are unapologetic about their desire for treasures, because treasures and gifts are the farthest thing in the world from cold, hard cash or a number in a bank account. Instead, they are a glimmering symbol of communal life—intricately made and reflecting equally intricate layers of relationships and story.
Even shrewd giving—the kind recommended by the poem—is harder than keeping treasure for oneself because it requires trust. The people you give your stuff to may actually fail you in the day of battle, as Beowulf’s own subjects do when he goes to fight a dragon in his old age and they chicken out. Or (to make this just a tad more applicable) others may not appreciate the gifts we give them. They may even take us for granted. And that is okay. The point is not that they appreciate it. The point is that they are worth it. The point, moreover, is that you have received more than you yourself can ever be properly thankful for. Everything you have is pure gift.
And so we celebrate Christmas over twelve days in order to learn to give and receive just a little better. If it’s a spiritual discipline, it is not a very taxing one. Christmas becomes less about acquisition and more about this basic human activity, as we give and receive in the context of relationship, remembrance, and worship. Occasionally, we run out of gifts (it is twelve days, after all) and search for something else to give—an hour of quality time, a poem, a handicraft, an I.O.U., a song. And it matters what we give, but not as much as the giving, or even the ability to graciously receive a better gift than we gave. Through it all, we are attending to each other, practicing gratitude and generosity, and rarely getting it quite perfect, but coming nearer all the while to the source.
There exists—in every moment—a shimmering web of gift, shining most intensely between family and friends, but connecting all of humanity across all time and space, and ultimately tying us back to the God who became Man at Christmas, who gave us all things, including himself, and who told us, “Freely you have received. Freely give.”