CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS

THE CUSTOM OF GIVING

If we research the custom of giving gifts at Christmas we discover the following:

‘Santa Claus’, as the imaginary giver of gifts, first appeared in advertising around 1840.
The commercialization of Christmas giving began in 1820.
The custom of giving Christmas presents became popular in the late 18th century.
The giving of gifts to the poor was practised by French nuns in the 13th century, on St Nicholas’ Eve [December 5th].
St Nicholas, in the 4th century, is reported to have had a practice of secretly giving gifts to the poor. It appears to be from this practice and example that giving gifts during the Christmas season became customary much, much later.

It is obvious that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas has become highly secular and highly commercialized. Christmas is a money-spinner. Christmas has also, for many, become a problem: what does one give to friends and relatives who have everything? The richer one is, the more well able to afford to buy what one needs, the more expensive the gifts received seem to be. This is far removed from the last two items on the list above, where gifts were given to those who had nothing. It was their desperate need that moved the hearts of the givers and attracted the gifts. Those who gave had no expectation of return. Those who received had nothing to give but their heartfelt gratitude.

And we need to stop and ask: is there anything even remotely connected with the real biblical Christmas in all of this? Is it right or wrong to give Christmas presents?

About giving to the poor the answer is easy: it is right, but it should not be restricted to Christmas. The Christ we celebrate at Christmas strongly taught that we should give to the poor and needy as a way of life. Indeed the whole Bible expresses concern for the poor, and measures our faith in God by our attitude to those who are needy.

About giving gifts to those we love, again, the answer is easy: it is right. Giving is a valid expression of love. Pure, love-based giving, is commended by Jesus in Luke 7:36-50. Parental giving is affirmed in Matthew 7:9-11. But this also is a way of life, not limited to one season.

In neither of the above is giving motivated by the expectation of return. In one, the motivation is the dire need of the recipient. In the other, the motivation is the love of the giver. And when we combine both of these motivations we come to the very heart of Christmas: that God, out of his abundant and immeasurable love, gave us the gift of his Son because of our desperate need. God, because of his great love, gave the most exceedingly costly Gift, because our need was most exceedingly great.

‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ [John 3:16].

‘This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world … he sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ [1John 4:9,10].

This was no last-minute, thoughtless Gift. This was a Gift planned before the beginning of time [2Timothy 1:9]. This was a Gift designed to meet every aspect of our multi-faceted spiritual need. This was a Gift that would address both our ignorance of God and our alienation from God. This was a Gift that would remove, for all time, in an effective, one-off, once-for-all, permanent action, all of our spiritual destitution and all of our spiritual debt.

Unlike our gifts to the poor, which have to be given again and again, those who receive this Gift will never again be spiritually thirsty, will never again be spiritually hungry [John 6:35], will never again live in spiritual darkness [John 8:12], will never again fear for their spiritual safety [John 10:9.28.29], will never again have a spiritual debit balance [2Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 2:14]. will never again face spiritual death [John 11:25,26]. Because of this Gift they are complete [Ephesians 2:10]. Because of this Gift they are permanently qualified to live in the very presence of God [Colossians 1:12].

This Gift, Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, is a much needed and totally appropriate gift. He is a gift that does not wear out or break down. He is a gift that will never need replacing. He is a gift that continues to support, sustain and satisfy us every moment of our lives. He is a gift that we take with us everywhere we go – to the ends of the earth, into the depths of our sadness and our darkest nights, into the heights of our joy. He is always there with us, and he is always relevant. The words ‘eternal’, ‘everlasting’, ‘endless’, ‘guaranteed’ – all of these describe God’s gift to us.

An interesting thing happens when we receive this gift from God: that God, the Giver, receives us. We who were alienated from him by our sin, he reconciles to himself through the death of his Son [Colossians 1:21,22]. We who were banned from his presence, he raises up and seats us with him in the heavenly realms in his Son [Ephesians 2:6]. We who were rebels now honour him as our King. We who had rejected him now worship him as our God.

And all of that is also part of God’s Gift: that when we receive Jesus Christ, we are also at the same time receiving in him the restoration of all that we lost because of our sin. By this Gift the Father brings us back to himself, the one place, the only place, where we can be what he created us to be.

This is the amazing grace, the incredible gift, of God. Unto us, destitute, rebellious, alienated, this Son is given [Isaiah 9:6]. He who has this Gift, this Son, has life. He who has not received this Gift, does not have life [1John 5:12].

In our busy-ness this Christmas season, in our scurrying around to find the right gift for each person on our list, let us remember this Gift of God, this Son of God, Jesus Christ: exactly the right gift from God to every human being. Let us remember, and be thankful. Let us remember, and worship. Let us remember, and be at peace.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2013