I understand the practicality of a registry-list for showers and weddings: people need certain specific items when starting a family or adding to one, and the registry helps keep multiple people from buying the same gift (requiring returns, etc.). This is practical. But isn’t it getting a bit much when people take it upon themselves to compile a list of wished-for items just for everyday perusal by their friends?
I guess what bothers me most during this particular season, however, is the sense of obligation generated. If you don’t buy presents, you’re considered a scrooge, or worse, considered a cheat by others as they may give presents to you and receive none in return. But if you do buy, then you face a long list of questions and problems about what to buy, for whom, how much to spend on any one individual and in total for the season, not to mention the hassle of traffic, lines, shortages, etc. And all of this comes mostly because, in our culture, you are simply expected to buy and give presents.
I know a young couple that lives in a high-cost-of-living area (because they grew up there and their families live there), has a special-needs child (added cost for physical therapy, etc.), has lots of associated medical bills, and yet has a moderate middle-class income. Because of their associations, the young lady once told us she felt “obligated” to give Christmas presents to at least twenty people. The lady is very gifted, resourceful, and creative with home-made gifts, but (as their smiling Christmas spirit would have it) none of her twenty people appreciates home-made gifts. She gets the fake, “Oh, wooow. Look at that. It’s soooo niiice.” That’s terrible. Will she give in to the pressure and actually spend, what, $20 each on these people—$400 total—out of her sense of obligation? They couldn’t, and shouldn’t have to, afford it. The idea that she’s obligated is terrible.
One of the greatest problems of gifting is that so few people actually have the gift for picking the perfect gift. The number of people who have it is tiny in comparison to the number who think they have it, and this causes many problems, not the least of which is re-gifting. I hate the idea of regifting. If I got something I hated to begin with, what kind of person would I be to foist it upon someone else? eBay, at best. The vicious chain-reaction of regifting is often started because someone was obliged in some circumstance to buy a gift. Likely, they had no skill or at least no idea in picking out the gift. Better left not done, I say—it saves time, money, embarrassment, awkwardness, and faux smiles. Even to put someone in such a position is borderline unChristian.
Further, people rarely buy gifts for anyone outside of a special occasion or holiday. Then when Christmas nears, they rush out and make barely-rational, at best, decisions about what to buy and how much to spend—and this several times over for many separate individuals. Many of these gifts will be exchanged within weeks either because they don’t fit, aren’t wanted (sometimes, even if they were on the list), are defective, etc., costing several more hours of time (away from work and family). Many more gifts will end up in closets, garages, basements, and attics unused for years before they are regifted, sold in a yard sale, find their way onto eBay or Craigslist, are just left to collect dust, or are simply thrown away with perhaps a few seconds of feelings of guilt. What a shame. All that time and money wasted because of the unspoken rule that we have to buy each other gifts at Christmas.
I’ve had this sentiment for a very long time: why shouldn’t we, instead of spending so much time and money on gifts that involve a large element of risk—risks they won’t like it, it won’t fit, wrong brand, will be regifted, etc., etc.—why shouldn’t we, each of us, take all the money we would spend on other people and instead (if we must indeed spend it) spend it on ourselves? While this sounds extremely selfish, it’s basically what we accomplish with wish lists anyway. And I will tell you in a minute why I think it is more biblical than the traditional model we have today. This would at least increase the chances that our obligatory gift-buying led to something that each person really wanted. Of course, this assumes that what we say we want, is really what we want—a huge assumption given fallen human nature—but this problem still exists when we buy for other people’s wants and is only compounded in that scenario.
Not long after I began to think this way an acquaintance told to read the then-new novel by John Grisham, Skipping Christmas. I did, and I enjoyed it until near the end. An empty-nest couple decides to retain the expenses and obligations of suburban-American Christmas and rather use the money they would have spent instead to buy a Caribbean Cruise for themselves. They carry out the plan up to the last minute, when (spoiler alert!) their daughter, who had been in Central America on a Peace-Corps mission, unexpectedly calls to say she’s coming home . . . with her new fiancée in tow. The couple scrambles to right the house with Christmas décor, buy presents, cancel travel plans, and act like nothing out of the ordinary every happened. I felt betrayed. My long-held true feelings about Christmas had been vicariously squashed by that unassailable generation-y do-gooder. (Dear John: I would have told her, “You have to get a plane ticket anyway, so meet us in Aruba.”)
What we have not realized is that the only thing that truly is out of the ordinary is the unspoken obligation to buy people presents at Christmas. Why do we Christians, especially, find it necessary to do so? We justify “gifting” in general by a vague analogy to the magi who, brought gifts to worship Christ: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold fit for a rich king, frankincense fit for worshiping God, and myrrh fit for a burial spice-perfume (as this King was born for a sacrificial death). Of course, we as Christians understand that the ultimate gift was given to us: Christ Himself was a gift, as both the perfect life and death in our place, and as a friend, and all that He ultimately is. Christ Himself, as He reigns on high, also gives us gifts in addition to Himself (Eph. 4:8), and these gifts are innumerable.
Perhaps we merely give to each other as a way of trying to follow Christ’s example of giving. If so, I wonder why our wish lists and gifts are so often filled with such consumables: electronics, music, movies, liquor, fashionable clothing, money, makeup, jewelry, gadgets, video games, etc. If the point is to follow Christ’s example, why do we load credit cards with debt in order to load the lives of only our friends and loved ones (usually close to us in social status) with new sparkles and wows? Why not take the money we would spend on Christmas and send most of it to some worthwhile charity? The Salvation Army plays on this little piece of guilt each year as they stand outside shopping centers. Personally, I think I can find better ways to give to charity, though the SA is not bad per se—I just personally dislike their Arminian theology and the fact that they ordain women. I like those organizations that drill water wells for African villages—a truly life-saving ministry. I also like Compassion International, of which my wife and I are members. There are a million better ways to spend a few hundred or a thousand dollars than to blow it on mostly imported consumer goods at Christmas.
Christians, I’m afraid, just don’t think outside the box, even though Christianity itself is outside the box. Perhaps too often we receive the gift of Christ in a similar selfish manner—as a personal consumable—and miss the sanctification that should follow. Such Christians, if they are Christians at all, have not progressed beyond the most infantile stages of faith. “So, what?” They may retort. “We’re still saved! That’s all that counts.” And therein lies the problem: Christ is, to them, Savior but not Lord.
Another problem with the gift-crunch-time is that people generally know it’s rude to ask for “too much” of a present, so they ask for little giftettes under $25 or $50 or so. This is pitiful because it means Christmas today motivates people to ask for things they don’t really want (certainly don’t really need), but at best have only enough taste to help satisfy the other’s sense of gift-obligation towards them. If our tradition allowed people to ask for what they really want (and really need), they we would see a lot of $1,000-plus presents on wish lists. Perhaps $10,000 or more even. (Perhaps much of this would be the relief of credit-card debt compiled partly from Christmases past).
For example, I like to speak plainly, so here are a few examples of real wish list items for Christmas, and I’ll go out on a limb to use a few examples from my own past:
- The house needs new siding and a paint job. I’d say a few thousand would cover it.
- A maid service to help my wife would be nice. My lovely and devoted better-half’s daily struggle involves homeschooling four boys ages 4–12 and corralling a 2-year-old. She has to struggle to accomplish her other house-wifely duties. At $10/hour, twice a week for three hours or so comes to about $3,120 per year.
- “Money” always makes a nice gift, but of course you want to give the right kind: gold. Gold currently trades at $1,068/ounce. You could get off cheap here as they have “fractional” coins at 1/2, 1/4, or even 1/10-ounce.
- I like being prepared for self-defense, and that means guns. Two good gifts come to mind here. I would prefer a newer, better shotgun for home defense. A Mossberg 500 with a pistol grip would do fine, and would be a bargain gift at around $300. My rifles are behind the curve as well. A new AR-15 could be had for around $1k, but for quality and kick I would prefer an HK416 or a Kriss Vector. After all we are talking about really wants here, right?
- My back yard has some erosion issues. One large slope could use regrading, a retaining wall, and some landscaping. I’d say $8k would be a good start.
- I also have a couple remodeling needs for my house. Although fairly new, it could use a couple improvements for function and practicality. Ball-park estimates will start around $2,000 minimum, each.
I’m not going to exaggerate: any of these things would serve me and mine much better than a bigger, better flat-screen (we don’t even subscribe to cable or dish), a PS4 (though I’ve been known to hold my own in a game of Madden), movies, or any of the number of things people could lay upon me that I may or may not need or even like (and please, please don’t send me any “beard balm”). I’m sure, if you were honest, your real-wish-list would look very similar—in fact, I’ll bet many would exhibit much more expensive needs than I have (cars, motorcycles, etc.). So we keep them to ourselves. Meanwhile, our sense of Christmas obligation compels people to ask and buy some of the most marginal and petty things available in the market.
In the end, however, I need a life that glorifies God and works to that end. I don’t need my life (and house) stuffed and cluttered with “things” bought off shelves at MegaBuy just because the season called for it. Humbug to that, and Amen to the humbug.
One of the greatest gifts is that of pure celebration: getting together, eating, drinking, relaxing, conversing. With families strung across the country these days, those being visited should view the expense and risks of travel as a tremendous gift from a travelling party. I don’t expect someone to shell out a few hundred in airfare, or a couple hundred in gas, and yet come bearing gifts beyond that. Thanks for coming to see me, and let me build you a fire and get you a drink. That’s a great gift to me.
This is more than your average holier-than-thou sentiment that says, “I don’t need presents, I just need Jesus.” Give me a break. That’s true in the abstract, a rank lie when spoken by any individual. The Bible says so by what it prescribes. I said earlier I would reveal the biblical basis of buying gifts for ourselves: it’s built into the law of the tithe. God commanded His people to tithe yearly of the produce of their land. It was to be transported to a central national location to engage in a yearly feast (See Deut. 12:10–28; 14:22–29). If the produce was too much to transport very far, it could be sold and the money taken to the central location. There God commanded them to spend it like this:
Spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household (Deut. 14:26).
It was a personal expenditure, on yourself (and family), to satisfy your lusts and wants in food and drink, and whatever. (And I especially appreciate the commandment to buy “strong drink” if you so desire. God is gracious.) You don’t hear this biblical advice today, certainly not as a model for conducting a yearly feast-occasion. I know some people who actually do such church-wide feasts at Christmas. Most Christians have never even read this verse. Tithing is not just about paying the pastor and the building (though it included some of that, Deut. 14:27). It also included feeding the widows and orphans (14:29), as I mentioned charities earlier. But it also meant feasting yearly. This was God’s command to feast and to enjoy His gifts to us by spending and celebrating together.
Some of what I’ve said here can come off as playing Judas, I know. I don’t intend to be that way. I think today’s Christian would do well to take several steps back from Christmas and think about what they’re doing, really. Christians should think about Christmas (and the rest of the year) economically from the perspective of God’s law. This would save them from potential debt, clutter, ill-feelings, and a host of other negative things. And yet it would lead them to feast and enjoy life like they rarely have before. And that’s worth getting together for. Are our normal traditions of obligatory gift-buying worth that? I have my doubts more and more every year.
I don’t expect many people to see it my way at first, but if you think through the issue from a practical, biblical perspective, you may at least think my idea’s not so crazy. You may even think it to be good critical biblical thinking. And that’s about the best Christmas present you could get for both of us.