Christmas is again lurking on the horizon, and with it our society’s tradition of gift-giving. Does anyone else find the giving and receiving of Christmas presents stressful? There’s so much emotional baggage tied up with presents, so much potential for hurt (“You don’t love me because you didn’t get me a good present”), disappointment (“But they should know that I don’t wear red”), jealousy (“They obviously put more effort into getting him his present …”), shame (“She doesn’t like it”), embarrassment (“Oh no! Did I give them the same thing last year??”) and awkwardness (the stilted “Thank you” and forced smile that accompanies an unwanted present). I hate giving presents that are received with a polite indifference, that disappoint or are unwanted. And I hate getting presents that I don’t want and which clutter up the house, and having to wrestle with the dilemma of how long I am obliged to keep an unwanted gift before I can give it away to someone else (or to the op shop).

Gift-giving has emotional loading … I still carry some resentment over the time some relatives visited us in Africa and the only presents they brought us were one packet of Lifesavers each.

Gift-giving has emotional loading. Note the emotional storm caused by the fiancé in Father of the Bride (the Steve Martin version from 1991) when he gives his bride-to-be the gift of a food processor or blender, which she interprets as a sign that he expects her to be “just a housewife” and do all the cooking … We regard present-giving as a mark of affection: the willingness to invest time and money in selecting a present, battling the crowds in shopping centres to buy it (or tracking it down on-line) and spending money are all seen as a sign of how much we love someone. Our emotional baggage includes how Christmases and presents were handled in our family of origin, past hurts or resentments, guilt, anxiety, a desire to please and be loved, the desire for affirmation and affection. For example, I still carry some resentment over the time some relatives visited us in Africa (where my parents were missionaries) when we were kids, and the only presents they brought us were one packet of Lifesavers each.

Then there’s the stress of different rules in different extended families. Is a joke present ever acceptable? Could you get a gift from an op shop, or give something handmade? Are you allowed to ask someone for suggestions about what they like, or is this seen as lazy? Are you allowed to request what you like – or even buy it yourself and then give it to your allocated Kris Kringle[1], who will wrap it up and give it to you on Christmas Day (which has happened in my family!)? What’s an appropriate limit for the Kris Kringle (or other presents)? For one acquaintance of mine, her family’s limit was $300 per present!

No wonder it’s a minefield.

I am embarrassed by how little we spend and how little energy we put into buying presents. I don’t want us to be cheap or stingy or selfish or lazy. But nor do I want us to be consumerist or greedy

I grew up as a missionary kid, and my husband grew up on a farm. We are both frugal by habit, and this is reflected in our approach to present-giving. For better or for worse, we are minimalist. My husband and I do not generally give each other presents any more (and we are both happy with that). Last year for Christmas we gave our children one small present each. My side of the extended family had a Kris Kringle with a $25 limit; my husband’s family didn’t exchange any presents. So our total spending for Christmas presents was under $300. To add to our minimalism, we don’t get a tree or decorate the house. I feel guilty that we don’t spend enough on presents; you, dear reader, might feel guilty that you spend too much on presents.

I am embarrassed by how little we spend and how little energy we put into buying presents. I don’t want us to be cheap or stingy or selfish or lazy. But nor do I want us to be consumerist or greedy or to unthinkingly go with the flow of our materialist society. So what is a biblical, godly approach to Christmas presents?

I have found it helpful, first, to recognise the cultural context we live in in Australia and in many Western countries.

  • We live in an extremely materialistic culture. Our enormous air-conditioned shopping centres are temples to the idol of money and consumerism. We are constantly exhorted by ubiquitous ads and social pressure to buy things. Our homes are cluttered with more and more stuff.
  • Giving gifts is portrayed as a way of demonstrating affection: the more you love someone, the more gifts (and the more expensive the gift) you will give them.
  • We live in a context where most people buy as a matter of everyday course the kinds of things that people in the past used to get as treats at Christmas: a new item of clothing, a necessary household item; special food; etc. Think of the kinds of things that were given in the Little House on the Prairie series, or Little Women, or Charles Dickens novels. Often things were homemade or second-hand. People often had to wait a long time to get a gift. In our context, in contrast, when we want something, we often just go and buy it ourselves. Consequently, to be special, Christmas presents have to be more expensive, more unusual, more luxurious than everyday purchases. Which means more pressure!

What (if anything) does the Bible have to say that is relevant to Christmas (and birthday) presents? What biblical values should shape our approach to presents?

Birthdays in the Bible

What does the Bible say about birthday and Christmas presents?

Not much! The only people recorded in the Bible celebrating their birthdays are not particularly good role models: Pharaoh in Joseph’s time (Genesis 40:20) and Herod, who beheaded John the Baptist at his birthday party (Matthew 14:6)! There are no commands to give birthday presents. The same goes with Christmas presents. Sure, Jesus was given presents at his birth, the first Christmas (Matthew 2:11), but these were symbolic gifts given to honour a king, rather than board books and baby rattles that baby Jesus would be expected to appreciate himself.

Godly Celebrations

On the other hand, there is certainly biblical precedent for celebrations and parties and feasting. There are times when it is appropriate to spend lavishly. In Deut. 14:25-26, the Israelites are told to…

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. 23 Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name … But if that place is too distant … then exchange your tithe for silver…  Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.

Note that there are two dimensions of this celebrating that our culture tends to omit. Firstly, this celebration is God-focused: it’s “in the presence of the LORD your God”. While our celebrations don’t have to be explicitly Christian events, we can still testify to God’s presence, perhaps by saying grace at parties or mentioning Jesus in speeches.

Secondly, God’s people were to make an effort to include those around us who are needy. They are told to share what they have with the Levites and with “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 14:29). Perhaps we can consider inviting those who are lonely, or socially awkward, or strangers, to join in some of our celebratory events.

Other Biblical wisdom

  • Loving our children doesn’t mean giving them everything they want. Perhaps one of the most important things we can teach our children is delayed gratification, going without, that the item or game or toy that they really want will not give lasting satisfaction, and that people matter more than stuff. We can also model other ways of showing people that we love them: by spending time with them; by serving them or helping them out; by praying for them. We are to seek to cultivate (in ourselves and our children) thankfulness rather than greed, contentment rather than materialism.
  • There is freedom in this issue. There isn’t a set amount that Christians must spend on Christmas; no minimum or maximum. Different families will have different cultures; different families have different strengths. Not all parents will be good at everything. Perhaps my husband and I are a bit neglectful when it comes to present-giving, but better at, say, healthy eating, or regular church attendance, or practising hospitality.
  • We are to be wise in the use of our money. For example, it would be foolish to go into debt to buy Christmas presents. Perhaps we need to resist pressure from ads and from our families to spend more than is wise.

This coming Christmas, let’s celebrate with thankfulness and generosity, thinking intentionally about how to honour God in this area of life, as in every other area, striving to be conformed to the mind of Christ, not to the mould of society around us.

[1] A Kris Kringle is an arrangement where each member of a family or group has to buy a present for one other person, either a specific person, or a gift that could end up with anyone. So everyone participating both gives and receives one present.