I do realize that the appearance of this article in March is not as timely as the original planned publication date, which was in February for the end of the Christmas season, at Candlemas. Just consider it advanced planning for this year.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.
One of the many forgotten arts of time past is that of gift-giving. Technology, which had promised the gift of extra time, has simply helped us relegate those time-consuming tasks that made us civilized to the realm of oblivion.
Gifts are supposed to be something more than a formality and a duty. They are supposed to pay tribute to the giver and the one to whom the gift is being given. The gift we give reflects not just ourselves, but our relationship with that person. An example that comes to mind is a birthday gift that I gave to my friend Brian some years past. He was in the midst of his new business which took up almost all of his leisure time. I knew that he used to play the harmonica in more leisured times and for his birthday I got him a new one and some harmonica tunes. It was a sign from me to him to relax a bit more, take some time, and remember his past-times. It was not pricey, but also not something I could just pick up from the supermarket on the way to this birthday dinner.
Today, such gifts are often replaced by gift cards. Gift cards are the ultimate expression of the careless culture. Now, I am not saying that all who have ever given a gift card as a gift or those who have gleefully spent them (as I often have) are wretched debasers of gift-culture. I only hope to, as I always do in these columns, challenge our lazy non-questioning of very new social conventions.
Gift cards are essentially cash. They are an admission that, “I didn’t know what to get you, maybe because I don’t know you well enough, or maybe because I didn't take the time to get you a gift, so I took five minutes in person or a minute on the web to get this for you. Cheers.” Companies love the gift card, as almost 40% of them are never redeemed, lost, or stolen. That’s free revenue for them. There is a gift card exchange on the internet, where you can trade your unwanted gift card for another one that you do want, or redeem it for cash. And wonder of wonders, Amazon is currently patenting a way for you to pre-return gifts from certain gift-givers so you don’t have to dirty your hands by actually receiving said unwanted gift.
I say if you plan to give a gift card, why give a gift at all? I am not saying all gifts need to be magnificent. I think of Queen Elizabeth’s gift to President Obama: a pen and stand made of timbers from a slave ship. What did this say about her character, their relationship, and her estimation of him? (and what did his gift of an iPod to her say about the same? Quite the contrary answer!)
Gifts are only obligatory on certain occasions: birthdays of direct family and close extended family, marriages, baptisms and other sacraments, and perhaps too, on Christmas (more on that now-gift-perverted holiday in a moment). If a gift cannot be given, at least give a card with a few thoughts of sentiment, so that like a gift, your card may be kept to reflect on in future times.
It is February and hence we are only just out of the Christmas season as of the Feast of Candlemas, but what a perversion modern Christmas has become! Santa, with his massive girth and bright red robe and hordes of reindeer and elves, has eclipsed Our Lord as the reason for the season. Children, instead of being reminded that Our Lord is come into our world and hearts, are themselves instead worshipped with endless gifts from doting parents and relatives. As joyful a child as I was at the mountain of gifts I received, I cringe now to recall that on not one of those occasions was my joy occasioned by the thought of my Lord’s birth. Christmas morning was about presents, me, and how many I got, period.
I would run down the stairs, survey the scene of booty below, and prepare for my father’s enforced ritual of slow present opening, from youngest to oldest, one-by-one. I don’t fault my parents for taking part in this ritual; it was, for some time, so intertwined with Christmas symbols that people thought they were indeed celebrating Christmas. It is clear now that we were worshipping one thing: Mammon.
Two Decembers ago I was on Orchard Road, the main thoroughfare in the island-city of my birth, Singapore. At the very head of Orchard Road was a giant sleigh with a sign reminding me that this display was brought to me by Visa. Indeed, Visa would receive our oblations, our worshipful thanks, and our true worship. As for Christ, He was to be remembered on one day alone, the 25th. And what an odd way to be remembered, by giving gifts to ourselves instead of Him!
I propose below some ways in which Christians may restore Christmas to its proper meaning and by further result, re-remember the art of gift-giving throughout the year. As always, these are suggestions.
1. Celebrate Christmas via the Liturgical Year. This means that if you wish to put up a Christmas tree in your home (a time-honored, though not-ancient Christian practice), please do so, but think not to adorn it before Gaudete Sunday. The Church affords no liturgical space for you to celebrate, so take it not upon yourself. If you put up manger scenes in your home, take care neither to put the Christ-child in the crib nor to put the wisemen out. It is not yet time. Make sure to celebrate St. Nicholas Day and give your children a holiday that the worldly children do not have.
2. Do not play Christmas music in your house or your car until Christmas Day. You will be unable to avoid the Christmas music played absolutely everywhere, including on hold on the telephone. Take that as penance and remember, we as Catholics celebrate for a month AFTER Christmas. The world starts the month before. So too save your Christmas treats of food and special cooking for after the 25th.
3. Celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas. Instead of making Christmas day about your children, make it about Our Lord. Make sure that everyone has a gift to present to Our Lord on Christmas Day. It might be a poem, or a drawing, or a spiritual bouquet, but make it something that is encouraged and celebrated by all. Your children will, as years go on, strive to outdo each other in a holy completion. Twelfth Night should be a night of joy in your home.
4. Celebrate Epiphany by making paper crowns and putting out the wisemen in the manger scene and singing Christmas songs. On Epiphany exchange gifts as a family. It is then that the Christ-child received His gifts, so too you might exchange gifts as He received them. I feel that young children in general (at least my nieces and nephews) have far, far too many toys and a much more valuable gift to them this time of year might be gold and silver coins, which in addition to reflecting the gifts given to Our Lord, will appreciate markedly in value over time. Limit your gifts to three. Our Lord did not receive more than that, why do you deserve more?
5. Take every opportunity to wish Merry Christmas to those around you far beyond the 25th of December. When they confusedly ask you why you do so, you can explain to them that Catholics celebrate the season of Christmas for over a month after the 25th, and it is thus that you greet them so.
In all of this realize you are fighting the world and as such you will train your children in what they know. If they don’t know, from an early age, that Christmas is a selfish, gift-giving orgy that is all about them, they might instead know, from an early age, that Christmas is a time of great happiness, when young souls may be fired by a generosity of spirit to give all they have to the Newborn King.
I pen this while still in the season of Christmas, so I wish all of you, a very Happy Christmas.