We know very few people who don’t give gifts at Christmas. Years ago, my pastor announced to the congregation that he and his wife had reached a point where they were no longer giving gifts to each other or their four boys for the holiday. I can’t remember what they were doing to celebrate instead, but I vividly remember the end of their gift giving.
My husband and I discussed it, and he simply couldn’t agree. He enjoyed doing the shopping and dealing with the crowds. For many years he even would be one of the people at the mall on Christmas Eve trying to find just one more gift. He and I both had grown up with modest means (he was one of 13 children), and I think even as an adult he still remembered Christmases from childhood when he received the simplest of gifts. He was grateful to be in a position to give freely—within our budget—to his loved ones and coworkers. He even proposed to me on Christmas Eve! He loved Christmas.
Once our daughter was old enough to believe in Santa, we really went berserk getting her gifts. We have a picture of her that has gone down in infamy. In it, she’s four years old, and she’s pictured with her gifts—lined up in a row that stretched from the tree to the kitchen. Even in years when money was tight, he and I might not have purchased gifts for each other, but we would still indulge our daughter.
As she got older, trying to figure out what to get her became a bit of a drag. My husband and I would revisit the conversation of paring down on gifts. I would suggest maybe going on a family trip, but he remained steadfast in wanting a traditional Christmas at home with gifts. When he passed, my daughter and I said goodbye to those traditional Christmases around a tree and started traveling. (We might still get each other a gift, too.)
Would Christmas be Christmas without gifts? As a Christian, I believe that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but unlike most people when celebrating their birthday, we don’t celebrate by giving gifts to the one whose birthday it is. We celebrate by decorating our homes—with a tree (or 2 or 3!), wreaths, garland, elves on shelves, lights, and gingerbread houses, just to name a few—and by giving gifts to the people in our lives.
Historically it makes sense to give gifts because Jesus was a gift to the world, and his birth brought us the gift of hope. Somewhere in history, Santa Claus was brought into the mix bringing gifts to children, and I would go so far as to say he took over. Christians and non-Christians alike get so swept up in gift-giving—the pressure of finding the perfect gifts and not forgetting to give gifts to everyone you think you need to—it becomes overwhelming. To the point of forgetting what the true meaning is. There are stories in the news every year about how much people spend on gifts, and statistics every year about people going into debt to buy them.
As a believer, I know that the true meaning of Christmas is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth. His birth brought a gift that could never be wrapped: hope. And somehow, thousands of years later, that silent and holy night got hijacked by everything from Santa Claus to Hollywood studios, so much so that I wonder: What would Christmas look like without material gifts? What would it look like to give people the gift of hope?
We are so deeply entrenched in our culture that I can’t fathom what it would look like for more people to forgo gifts and embrace a holiday of giving their loved ones—or even their community—the original gift of hope. We are probably all hoping for something, but if you are in a position where there’s nothing you’re hoping for, then you are in the perfect position to be a harbinger of hope to others.
Beyond volunteering for a day, maybe you could give hope to a young person and sign up to be a Big Sister or Big Brother. Maybe you can give hope by starting a college fund for a young person in your life. Maybe it’s telling a friend that you’ll babysit for them for free on a regular basis or inviting someone to church. Maybe you could organize a card-writing Christmas party with your friends to write cards to women undergoing breast cancer treatment. When hope is the gift, there are so many ways to give.
What would Christmas look like if we tried to elevate the experience—if we gave the gift of hope?