December 13 2020

The Significance of Christmas Gifts

The arrival of the third Sunday in Advent announces that Christmas is imminent, and that soon most of us will be engaged in a sizeable exchange of presents and cards.

The custom of giving and receiving presents at a certain time of the year goes back, in fact, beyond Christian history, and has been recorded as having taken place in many different lands among many different peoples.

May I quote to you what Henry Van Dyke said about the custom? “… it is a fine thing, or a foolish thing; … an encouragement to friendliness, or a tribute to fashion; an expression of good nature, or a bid for favour; a cheerful old custom, or a futile old farce : according to the spirit which animates it, and the form which it takes.

When this very ancient custom, then, assumes the form we are thinking especially about today, what it can then represent becomes emphasised, and through that emphasis we can see its true significance.

And the significance is threefold. It means giving in the spirit of reverence, as when the wise men knelt before the babe in Bethlehem and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It means giving for the happiness and welfare of others. And it means a giving of our self with the gift.

We may be led to wonder sometimes why people do give presents to one another. In some cases it has doubtless just become a form of habit, something expected. For others it may produce a certain sense of self-satisfaction, and possibly a feeling that we may have somehow secured the goodwill of those to whom we give. I think that possibly that is why the truly breath-taking and unforgettable gift, the extraordinary act of generosity, is in quite another league, because it isn’t at all self-referential. Christmas giving is, I suppose, most akin to the way a parent gives to a child, prompted by real affection and goodwill, without any selfish motive.

We all know something of this spirit, and the old idea of Father Christmas bringing presents has this element within it: Father Christmas represents anonymous giving, giving in secret, simply for the happiness of those who receive.

It is really a welcome feature of childhood Christmas, because it focusses attention away from ourselves, and on to the love that binds us together.

I have to admit to not being especially fond of that seasonal favourite “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, but one thing I do like is the way Scrooge asserts that nothing can be more ridiculous than Christmas, unless it is falling in love. The two are  inextricably related, of course, because both involve the giving of ourselves.

You may remember me telling you the story of a young Caribbean boy who had been receiving English lessons from a teacher. When the time came for the teacher to return to the UK, the boy wanted to give her a special gift to say thank you. He decided to get her a conch shell, which he knew he could find on a particular beach. The beach, however, was nearly a dozen miles away from where he lived. Nevertheless he set out on foot to search for a shell. The next day he gave his teacher the most beautiful shell he could find, and his teacher was absolutely thrilled. “But where did you find this?” she asked. “On beach,” he replied. “But that’s miles away,” she said, “you shouldn’t have walked that far.” And the boy replied, “Long walk is part of gift.”

At Christmas we remember that the magi came from afar to pay homage in the lowly stable. We, likewise, far off in time, revere the child born into his humble circumstances. We revere him for the powers and possibilities that were latent within him. It may not be easy to believe in the universality of such possibilities, particularly in the face of the evils we see about us today, but that those possibilities still exist is one of the fundamental beliefs of our religion. That in a nutshell is why we have to manifest our faith, and make it real in the world, in the form of respect and care.

For those who will not acknowledge this, Christmas is something contrary to their natural order of things: it is “humbug”. But for those who are able to give in the right spirit, Christmas is the one season most in accord with our best nature, fulfilling our potential for good. The influence of these brief days, the gladness, the goodwill, the friendly spirit, are felt by us all.

Like a key which unlocks the whole mystery, by giving in the right spirit for one season, the infinite possibilities of our human nature are revealed to us once again.

December 25th will quickly come and quickly go. But Christmas is not merely a date, it is an attitude towards things and towards others; a serious call to our deepest nature to keep this spirit alive in ourselves; to live a life of reverence, faith and joy throughout the year.

In the words of a prayer by A Powell Davies: “Teach us that the most important gifts which we can give to one another, cannot be wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.”

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period