With Christmas literally only a few days away, the most natural thing to write about would be some aspect of the birth of Christ. Because of my pastoral background, it would be easy to examine the angels and their message to the shepherds, or to spend time pondering the shepherds themselves. I’ve written sermons about the sheep the shepherds abandoned so they could be obedient to the announcement from on high, and about the animals that were most likely in the stable to witness the birth. I’ve written about Joseph and Mary, Herod and the Magi, even the tiny town of Bethlehem itself, and spent countless hours pouring over the text and through all of my study materials to try and find some way to present a familiar story in a fresh way.
Today, I’ve decided to write about something else completely. With a nod to the late author David Foster Wallace, I’d like to ask you to consider the Christmas gift.
With two kids at home, plus seven nephews, one niece, and who knows how many other small children that we “have to buy a little something for”, the vast majority of Christmas anxiety around our house centers on the Christmas gift. Now, as most of my nephews have gotten older, the gifting has gotten easier: iTunes gift cards, Old Navy gift cards, Best Buy gift cards, Game Stop gift cards, Walmart gift cards, video games, and even batteries have become popular requests. And those things are great: they take next to no thought, often come with some sort of packaging that doesn’t require wrapping or gift bagging, and don’t elicit the dreaded, “Gee. Thanks. This gift bites.” response that children have not learned to hide as well as adults.
But for my younger nephews and niece, my own two kids, as well as the adults in my life, the Christmas gift is slightly different, and I’d like to focus on it for just a moment and give it due consideration. Begin with the selection process. My wife handles this part for our family, so my observations are purely second hand. She writes down each child’s name and begins sending out a barrage of emails and phone calls to the parents to try and discover some nugget of useful information. With the younger ones, people tend to say things like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter to them.” This is true – most often the gift doesn’t matter to the kid.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to the parent.
This is consideration number one of the Christmas gift: the burden of expectation. You probably know what I’m talking about: you have a friend who’s just had a little girl, so you and your spouse buy the new one a gift, some tiny Christmas dress that looks like shrunken holiday formal wear. It has tiny pink roses stitched into the red velvet top, and a shimmery patterned skirt beneath an imitation silk ribbon belt. And you’re excited to give this gift as a token of love and friendship and well wishes for the little girl. And yet, when your friend opens it up, he has the same expression on his face that he used to reserve for the underwear his grandmother gave him. He smiles and says a muted, “Thanks,” and tosses the dress onto a pile of other gifts he didn’t like and you feel a little piece of yourself die inside.
You spend hours thinking and scheming and working hard to give the most thoughtful, personal, perfect gift possible, and there’s still a fifty-fifty shot that the recipient will react as though you’ve given them the gift of intestinal flu. Merry Christmas!
But let’s say you do nail the gift and meet expectations. There’s still a lot to be considered. I would venture to say that most of us don’t give one hundredth of a second to consider the wrapping of a typical Christmas gift. Sure, we might labor over gift bag versus box or fuss over a bow, or maybe we try to pick out paper that seems expressive of our personal style, but for the most part the main consideration with wrapping presents is usually “Git ‘R Done.” And I say this with relative confidence after receiving enough gifts whose appearance suggested the giver was in a hurry and didn’t seem to grasp just how easy it is to actually get a nice corner if you use enough small pieces of carefully placed Scotch-brand tape and precise folds, much less care about the actual conforming of the paper to the item being wrapped. As an OCD wrapper myself, I tend to notice these things.
Yes, wrapping seems to be a minute concern for most people, especially since all we really want to do is tear away the paper, rifle through the box, and claim our treasure. We don’t think about the anticipation the paper creates or how the gift’s presentation affects our emotional connection to the gift. We don’t stop to ponder the time invested in preparing the physical marvel that is a hand-crafted bow. We blow past the wrapping to get to the inside part without considering that everything we’ve just destroyed is meant for us, for our enjoyment. We don’t really see the gift.
Which brings me to a third consideration: have you ever really thought about the tragic life of a Christmas gift? It’s heartbreaking.
Here’s this toy or shirt or gift card, plucked from the comfortable aisles of some local megastore where it existed in a state of perfection on the shelf or rack. It’s crammed into a shopping cart, then scanned, then stuffed into a crowded plastic bag and deposited back into the shopping cart, only to be unceremoniously dumped into a waiting car trunk beside who knows how many other bags, and then it gets jostled around inside said trunk because the driver is trying to get home through insanely rude holiday mall traffic. Then, once the trunk is opened, the toy or shirt or gift card is hauled out and shoved into a closet or corner or cabinet where it sits, crowded and forgotten, until someone finally brings everything out to be wrapped. Then, it’s handled like uranium 238 and suffocated by the restrictions of paper and tape and bows (or, in the case of a gift bag, surrounded by thin paper and dropped into an abyss) and deposited beneath the tree where it is stared at and jostled and otherwise molested until someone picks it up and again shoves it into a bag or box and deposits it again into the car trunk for the slow ride towards it’s doom. The toy or shirt or gift card is then hauled out again and taken inside, where it waits for the intended recipient to grab it and look it over for a moment or two. It feels the warmth of skin on paper, knows the momentary delight of being wanted and the temporary excitement of desire, and then it is brutally torn apart, piece by agonizing piece, its sides pierced as the recipient rips open the box or bag and gleefully hoists the bounty into the air for all to see.
And that’s not even the horrible part. Because there’s a final consideration, and that is that all gifts are meant to be broken. Gift cards are drained of their purchased life, sometimes all at once, sometimes tiny purchase by tiny purchase. Shirts are worn, stained, torn, repaired, washed, folded, and hung until their threads lose their color and their stitching loses its strength and the whole item is tossed away to Goodwill or used as a rag for cleaning cars or dusting end tables.
Toys might have it the best, because they are beloved by children, played with and named and claimed and, if given to my daughter, adopted into the family culture whereby they get a seat at the dinner table each evening or get to ride around town carefully stationed in my daughter’s lap as she holds them close and narrates her observations and life in detail to this tiny piece of plastic and fabric and synthetic hair. But the intensity of a child’s passion only makes for a harder fall, because as the “Toy Story” franchise has taught us, children grow up. This Christmas’ prize often become next Christmas’ victim, and even if a toy can manage to stick around for it can’t avoid the inevitable: all it takes is one small misstep, one accidental slip of the finger or catch on the coffee table corner, and that familiar snap or crunch announces that the toy has reached its destination.
It is broken. And even if dad can patch things up with some super glue and imagination to prolong things a bit more, the end always comes just the same.
Consider the Christmas gift. Burdened with expectations that couldn’t be met, wrapped so beautifully but not noticed, given with love only to be broken and discarded and buried. Consider it, but then consider this:
Three days later, He arose, and the unmet expectations were exceeded, the beauty of His glorious wrapping could not be denied, and His brokenness became His crowning majesty – the nail scars in His hand that proclaimed Him the Son of God in all power and glory and truth. Consider this and remember that the gifts that are given beneath the tree are only types and shadows of the Gift that was given on the tree. This Christmas, consider the Christmas gift and behold the awesomeness of our God.