Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Devotional 3: Gratitude for Giving and Receiving

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 118:1

Have you seen that ill-conceived Buick advertisement in which a man whose wife has just given him a not-Buick car for Christmas looks longingly at a Buick as it drives by? The ad’s emphasis on longing after status, of placing that longing ahead of a genuine act of generosity, disturbs me greatly. Have we become a nation of ungrateful wretches who weigh the value of gifts not by the intent and sentiment behind them but by the dollar amount or status they represent?

Two Sundays ago, the Dayton Daily News had a headline on the Life section that disturbed me as much as the Buick ad: “The 10 Most Tired Gifts This Season…and What to Give Instead.” The author lists such gifts as coffee mugs, picture frames, neckties, fruitcakes, and wallets as bad ideas for gifts.

The article says more about a particular perspective on giving than on what constitutes a tired gift. In a culture of excess, old-fashioned gifts are “tired,” and newer, glitzier, more expensive gifts are what is valued. The article, for instance, suggests giving an electronic photo frame instead of a regular picture frame. Regular frames might run $10-$30 and up. Sure, you can pick a cheap electronic one up for $30 or so, but the reviews on those are universally bad. To get a good one, you need to spend at least $120, but the best ones are over $200.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite a reasonable substitute for those of us who haven’t won the lottery.

The author also has it in for giving candles. She writes,

“Women especially are plagued by decorative or scented candle gifts. It’s basically a go-to present when you don’t have much time, thought or money to put into a gift. And that’s what it says to the recipient. Plus, no one actually needs a candle since the invention of electricity.”

I consider candles a luxury item precisely because they are not needed. I love how they can add a decorative element of the evocative scents of the season (and counter the smell of cooked onions and garlic). I love the flickering light of candles. When they are burning, I want to make a cup of tea and find a good book and relax. And when Hurricane Ike hit Ohio, I was especially grateful for them as we did without electricity for days on end.

Candles make me feel warm and happy inside. When I receive a candle as a gift, I am grateful for that warmth and happiness, and when I give candles as gifts, I’m trying to give that warm and happy feeling. I sure hope the people who have received them from me knew that.

Gift giving provokes a lot of opinions on what constitutes a good or bad gift, and the multitude of opinions adds to the stress of choosing gifts. Teachers, for instance, often get tired of receiving apple-themed gifts, and frankly, I can see their point. But what do you get for someone whom you only know in a professional capacity? How personal can it be?

How personal were the gifts given to Jesus by the three wise men? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are certainly expensive, and definitely gifts of status and wealth. But then, the wise men were kings, giving gifts to the King of Kings. In a book titled Everything Christmas, I found the following story:

“A Sunday School teacher was telling her class of fourth-graders the Christmas story of three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus. A little girl who had recently become the big sister of a brand-new brother said: ‘Well, I guess gold and all that stuff are all right, but I’ll bet Mary really wished somebody had brought some diapers.”

And therein lies our dilemma. Do we buy practical gifts, luxury gifts, fun gifts, useful gifts? What does each person on our list prefer? How can we know? What exactly is the point of Christmas gift giving? Is it to let people know we love them and are thinking of them? Or is to see how much money we can spend? To stress out finding the perfect gifts for our 100 closest family and friends? To go into debt? To look good and impress others? To revitalize the economy? To make other people feel obligated to give us gifts?

And what is our attitude as we receive gifts? Are we filled with gratitude that someone thought of us at all? Or do we judge the gifts and weigh them against the gifts we didn’t get? Do we wonder if we spent more on someone than he or she spent on us? Do we wish the person had given us something else? Do we immediately make plans to exchange it for something we really want? Do we get wrapped up in our culture of excess and status and forget what Christmas is all about?

When God gave us Jesus, He gave us the greatest gift ever given: The Son of God given for our salvation and to teach us how to love. I can’t compete with that sort of gift. Can you?

But we can use that gift as a model for our own gift giving and receiving. Let everything go, all the fretting and worrying and waffling over gifts. Focus only on expressing your love and accepting the love given by others. Give gifts with a spirit of love and gratitude, and receive gifts in the same spirit.

Even that fruitcake from Aunt Matilda, because like God’s steadfast love, it will endure forever, which makes it a pretty cool gift, if you think about it that way.

What gift have you been given for which you are particularly grateful? What gift have you given that particulaly showed love to the recipient?


  1. I can answer the second question. My husband loves hot spicy food very, very much. He sweats and gets red in the face, but he loves the stuff. Weirdo. So I looked around online and bought him hot sauce made from ghost peppers - the hottest pepper in the world! Until the day after I purchased the stuff, when they found a new and hotter pepper. But I tried.

    By the way, I don't like spicy stuff at all. I'm all about the bland.

  2. So true! I have become more and more frustrated with Christmas marketing over the years.

    My Grandmother had 48 grandchildren, and every year we all got something handmade from "The Christchild". When I went to University at 18, I lived with my Grandmother for a year, and I was privy to her crafting process. She searched and searched for the perfect pattern, then spent the entire year making Christmas gifts for her grandchildren. That year it was dolls for the girls and teddy bears for the boys.
    I got to be Santa's helper while I was there, and we spent many evenings crafting - and bonding. That year, the gift I got from my Grandmother was infinitely more special than the wrapped gift under the tree.
    I will always cherish the handmade gifts, because I know how much thought and love they are made with. Fruitcakes included:)

  3. I am particularly grateful for a gift I received from my Mom this year for my birthday. A journal of various questions about her life. In her own handwriting. With pictures of the two of us. I never imagined receiving anything like this from her and I was overwhelmed. We were alone when I opened it, and I read through it. We laughed, we cried. Some things I remembered, some I didn't, some I never knew. I have 3 sisters and we each received one of these precious gifts this year.

    Along the same lines, the best gift I have ever given was a journal. My son was stationed in Korea for a year. I wanted to send him something extra special for Christmas. So I started during the summer, typing questions for each set of grandparents and for his Dad and me to answer. These questions were answered in each person's own handwriting. I compiled everything into one book and sent it on its way. I was able to talk to my son on Christmas Day. He loved the gift, but had only been able to read short portions of it, because it brought this manly man to tears and made him homesick. I look forward to reading this one day soon...


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!