The annual season of gift-giving and receiving is nearly upon us. The malls have been decorated since October and the advent calendars (with Ninja Turtles, super heroes, Barbies and other commercially appropriate images) are prepped with daily chocolates for the beginning of December when the unavoidable countdown begins. What does this teach us about giving? Is it that the anticipation is sometimes better than the reality?
The industry of gift-giving and receiving is immense. Marketing budgets are over the top. Sales tactics remind everyone what is at stake. Is that gift big enough, expensive enough, personalised enough? You wouldn’t want to disappoint the recipient would you? What does this teach us about giving? Is it that big and important is best?
Santa reminds the children to “be good for goodness sake” and their Mums and Dads have only to mention the “naughty or nice list” to get sudden compliance. What does this teach us about giving? Is it that giving is conditional on our behaviour?
The magazines are full of perfect happy families eating delicious food, but I can’t tell who prepared it, because there are no pictures of harried Mums still wearing gravy stained aprons at the table. What does this teach us about giving? Is it that only perfect happy people come to the table to share a feast?
And in the magazine there is a flyer asking us to “Give Hope” this Christmas to a family, a young man, an elderly woman – all who will struggle with not enough money for gifts and food, or too much loneliness. What does this teach us about giving? Is it that a donation to “Give Hope” will inoculate us from the messy lives of our neighbours?
Every year I try to simplify Christmas. My children probably thought we were the worst parents in the world because no matter what they asked for, Santa Claus brought them small inconsequential items. If there was a special gift it came from us. I worry when I see parents striving and going into debt to make sure Santa delivers just what was asked for. When I worked for a social service agency, we saw it a lot. And it broke people. They wanted to do their best for their kids. And they discovered their best wasn’t enough.
So, I can take two different approaches now. I can write a pragmatic and practical few paragraphs on “how to take the stress out of Christmas”. But I think you will find a magazine, blog or newspaper article that suggests harnessing the power of together – we all bring something to eat, we do secret Santa and only buy for one person per family, we make home-made gifts and give experiences (like baby-sitting, or dog walking or even putting the bins out without being reminded). It shares the load. But it’s still a load of work. And at the end of the day (5.30pm Christmas Day to be precise) everyone’s tired, the toys are broken and someone just had a fight with Aunty.
What would happen if we stopped buying into it all. “Buying” – that’s a good word. It tells you what is driving Christmas in our communities.
God has given us, out of his abundant love, the costly gift of his son. We anticipate his arrival as the small vulnerable child of a homeless family. We learn of God’s extravagance and to value what is small and has no social status. God’s gift does not depend on what we have done, and we are all welcome at the table.
What does Jesus teach us about giving? That living is giving. God is the creator, owner and giver of all things. All that we have and all that we are is held in trust and we are responsible for its proper use. Giving is not just about what we do, but who (or whose) we are. Giving gets to the heart of discipleship. If we can’t give freely and generously from what we have, then are we fully surrendered to Jesus? Christian giving is not about God’s need for money (and it shouldn’t be about the Church’s need for it either), but our need for God to reign in all aspects of our life.
What is a Christian response to giving, especially at Christmas? To remember what is important. God’s gift and his continued generosity to us – to me, to you. To love God and love our neighbour (yes, even that insufferable Aunty). Don’t buy into the hype. Give with love, not compunction. Take time to thank God. Maybe even be courageous enough to share the story of God’s gift with someone who does not yet know who Jesus really is.