People complain that gift-giving becomes empty, frenetic, and annoying. But the problem may not be the giving of gifts but the way we do it. The basic principle is: Anything you do without soul will feel empty and meaningless. So, the task at Christmas is to approach gifts in a different way, in a way that will have some depth and emotion.
Giving with Soul
Knowing the deeper importance of Christmas and the role of gifts in the philosophy and values of the festival might help keep gift-giving joyous and meaningful. How you imagine gifts makes all the difference. But you have to educate, train and practice a deeper way of giving.
First, don’t think of gifts in the usual way, as just something you want to do for people close to you, or worse, an obligation demanded by Christmas custom and family tradition. Think of a gift as the language of your soul. With your gift, as simple as it may be, you want to say something to the person receiving it, and that message is precise and particular. It’s more than generic love and good wishes. As you search for or make your gift, you could fill it with your fantasies of good will.
Christmas gifts represent the evolved way of life Jesus recommended for humanity as a whole. You live from the heart, you tame your ego cravings (that’s the meaning, in part, of the Gospel practicing of getting rid of negative urges), and you foster community and connection over self-interest. Gift-giving with purity of heart represents the Jesus way; it is more about community than about a personal attempt to be loved or reciprocated. The family around the tree, at least for this day, represents the world living by the joyous principle of love rather than by competition and rules.
Christmas gifts are a taste of utopia, a way of being in the world that flows from the heart and overcomes ego anxieties. In this way, gifts are the real meaning of Christmas and are an important part of the entire, multi-faceted festival. If Christmas is about creating a liminal world, separate from the one we know too well, then gift-giving is the central act of that world.
Knowing this, you might put your heart into the gifts instead of being half-hearted with them. You could appreciate Christmas, as it was centuries ago, as a time-out from life as usual. Take it as a break from the extreme focus on money and possessions that is so central in modern life and from the usual economics of life. For one day at least, Christmas is a gift culture, an aspect of our utopian purpose.
If your intention with gifts is to make a better world, in deep alignment with the Jesus teaching and many other spiritual traditions of enlightenment, you may not feel burned-out by the obligations and activities of the season. You may look forward to giving gifts as a way of ritually making a step forward in evolution. You may use your imagination more fully, understanding the inherent importance of gifts. You could enter gift-giving as a new way of life, as an aspect of a joyous worldview free of narcissism. Whenever we make anything too personal instead of communal, it becomes a burden. And, if you don’t have an expansive philosophy of Christmas, you may reduce it to money and things and celebrations that have little substance beyond self-interest.
The Magi who came from the place of the rising sun understood the power of magic, and for that reason they brought meaningful and beautiful gifts to the child. The gifts were a kind of magic, as our Christmas gifts can be. They can help create a better life for all children and for others by evoking the power of love and community. The special enchanting spirit of Christmas is crucial to the festival, and gifts can intensify that spirit.
Jesus himself seems to have lived in a gift economy of sorts. Maybe he was a carpenter, but the stories of his life depict a teacher and healer who is supported by the people around him. He is generous, as we see in the stories where he miraculously conjures up fish sandwiches to feed thousands of people listening to his teaching, and when he heals people suffering from various illnesses. He is both a good giver and a good receiver.
Anthropology and philosophy delve into the complexities and shadow aspects of gifts and the idea of a gift economy. For our purposes, we may reflect on the utopian ideals of the Jesus way and give gifts at Christmas in that spirit, without being discouraged by the dark aspects of gift-giving: doing it out of proportion, anxiously, with the expectation of getting something in return.
In many instances it’s as difficult, or more difficult, to receive a gift than to give one. You are willing to show some dependence, which is not in itself a bad thing. You may even say, perhaps nonverbally, that you are in need.
What I enjoy most about receiving gifts is seeing how another person, usually someone I love, is thinking about me and wants to care for me. This is a dance of relationship, and my part is to receive the gift gracefully. In some ways it takes more strength of character to receive than to give a gift. But both sides of this heart-skill are necessary to establish a community that is not focused on amassing personal possessions—the darker side of money.
Jesus tells that strange story of the people who work in a vineyard: some work all day, some about half a day, and some an hour or so. They all get paid the same. Jesus, that infant in the crib, offers a different fantasy of economics, and his entire approach is based on the primacy of the heart.
The color of the heart is red, for obvious reasons. Notice Santa’s red suit, strings of red beads on the tree, as well as many red ornaments, red napkins and placemats, red dresses and ties at parties. The primacy of the heart. The gift economy of the heart stands in on this one day for the usual economy of hours worked, seniority, rank, productivity and advancement. Christmas is not just a holiday; it’s the microcosm of what a renewed life might look like, at least in principle.
Giving from the Heart
If you have lost sight of the deep role of gift-giving at Christmas, wrap your presents in red, just to remind you of the heart. Give a gift that is meaningful to you and to the one receiving it. Embrace the giving and heart-centered spirit of Christmas, and don’t try to justify it through some abstract point of theology. Giving is the active theology appropriate to the festival.
In my world, the gift economy applies to every aspect of my life and work, but it isn’t usually plain, obvious and uncomplicated. Often, when I travel to speak for a group, I will give a free talk at a church or hospice. I will charge less than my usual fee. I will make a special effort to be available to people by spending extra time with them. Whenever I sign books, I do it slowly, offering a small conversation to anyone who wants one. This is a portioned gift economy that has the advantage of not standing out as a radical experiment but only as a tweaking of the usual, introducing the gift economy in single strands, like threads of gold leaf in a fabric of dark cotton.
In speaking of gifts, the highly imaginative cultural philosopher Ivan Illich once said that the Christian churches make a mistake in institutionalizing the gift of caring for people in need, when it would be much more beneficial for individual people inspired by the Jesus way to make “gifting” part of their personal lives. Institutional aid is valuable and can be full of heart, but if it takes away from a personal lifestyle of giving, the loss is significant.
Gifts are an expression of the heart, as is the core of the Jesus philosophy, where the well-known Greek word agape is key. The word refers to a kind of love that is like that of husband and wife, not just momentarily passionate but steady, ongoing affection and dedication to a life together. Agape is sometimes like brotherhood and community, and it can also be an appreciation for things. In the ancient world, the loving goddess Isis was referred to as the “Agape Goddess” and was pictured much like a Madonna caring for her child.
This is the deeper spirit behind a serious effort to give gifts and to make gifting a way of life. You can do this simply and with pleasure in your daily interactions. Instead of basing them entirely on a paid-for-services model, you can add gifts where appropriate—but always gifts that have some heart in them. It isn’t enough to create a business program that looks like gift-giving but lacks a real heart.
Christmas gift-giving is a ritual that expresses the idea in the hothouse of the Christmas season but serves as a model for the rest of the year. If Christmas giving is genuine and generous, then maybe life during the year will have the qualities of this aspect of Christmas, qualities that can help us evolve into more humane and loving people.