For years, I dreaded Christmas and the social gatherings that came with it.
While my friends and colleagues looked forward excitedly to exchanging presents and spending time with friends, I hated the idea of attending awkward barbecues with strangers. The thought of having to make small talk with strangers while I tried to work my plastic cutlery into my tasteless, overcooked steak, was enough to make me wish I was the Grinch, so I could steal Christmas.
And you know what I disliked most at those gatherings? The gift exchange. Don’t get me wrong, I love presents—especially when I’m the one being showered with gifts (who doesn’t!). However, the whole practice of giving something to someone you’ve been assigned to anonymously fills me with dread.
I had always thought the game of Secret Santa should really be renamed Stingy Santa, going by what people brought to swap. Inevitably, it would be the usual cheap mug, scented candle from the discount shop, or unappealing photo frame. People seemed to treat the Secret Santa pile like a convenient place to get rid of unwanted gifts. Admittedly, I was one of them. I’d bring a box of chocolates, because, really, why bother? It was not like anyone else had put much thought in his or her present, right?
But my views on Christmas gifts changed one year, when I joined my church at its annual drive to deliver presents to families and people in need.
We were told to pick a tag from a Christmas tree, which would tell us whom to buy a gift for. It was a great opportunity, my pastor said, to be a blessing to someone in our community. She told us to give generously, as those presents would probably be the only gifts those families would have received in the whole year. Give generously, she said, because it was also a way of reflecting Jesus’ love for them. In other words, treat them like you would your own family. Put some thought into the presents, and buy something that would touch and bless the recipient.
It was a challenge to figure out how much I should spend—or was willing to. Thoughts like, “Why should I spend this much on them?” and “It’s not like they’ll know who bought it for them, and not like they’re going to thank me” came to mind.
However, upon deeper reflection, it suddenly struck me: What if God had my mindset when it came to gift-giving? We know that God loved the world so much that He gave us His one and only Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins while we were still sinners (John 3:16, Romans 5:8). But if He had the same thoughts that I did, He’d be wondering whether He should give us Jesus at all, since we might not appreciate Him or thank Him for it. And what if God based the gift of exclusive time with Jesus on our social status? The wealthy and upper classes would be given more access to Jesus, while the lower classes would be relegated to a balloting system—“You get to see Jesus only if you pull out the winning ticket”. How horrible would that be?
Fortunately for us all, God loves us with a deep, everlasting love, and the gift of His precious Son is available to us all; His love knows no boundaries. Our good and generous Father gave His best; He didn’t scrimp. We should reflect that characteristic as we open our wallets to bless others this Christmas.
And so I went out to buy an autobiography of the late All Blacks rugby legend Sir Fred “The Needle” Allen (I even had it signed by the man himself), a set of cotton pyjamas, and a Christmas decoration. I wrote a note to the recipient wishing him a merry Christmas, and told him God loves him. I spent about $70 on his present—exceeding my budget and surprising myself by how much I spent. But I enjoyed the whole experience so much that I’ve been doing it ever since.
Christmas can a busy, stressful season, as we race to make sure we’ve bought presents for our loved ones, booked our holidays, planned our dinner party menus, and caught up with friends. There is nothing wrong with all this, of course—after all, it is the season to spend time with family and friends. But let’s remember that Christmas can also be one of the loneliest seasons for those without families: the elderly widower, the new resident who has just moved into your neighborhood and is millions of miles from his or her family, and the newly divorced mum who is struggling to raise three young children on her own.
This year, as you rush to complete your Christmas shopping, can I encourage you to pick something out for a family or individual in need of a pick-me-up? Can you take a bit of time to get something special, as if you’re buying it for yourself?
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should start competing with friends to see who’s able to splurge the most on a present. You also shouldn’t feel pressured to spend large for its own sake; Jesus applauded the poor widow who gave her two copper coins—all that she had—to the temple, saying that she had “put more into the treasury than all the others” (Mark 12:42-43).
If Christmas has always revolved around your own wish list for gifts or shopping for people you know, why not add someone else to your list this year? If you can’t think of anyone to buy a present for, why not do a monetary donation to your local soup kitchen or food bank?
There are many ways to give, and your one act of generosity could make a huge difference in someone’s life this Christmas—just as Jesus’ coming did for us.