Anyone have an extra $1,054 you don’t know what to do with? Too late. Your Christmas shopping already decided for you where that’s going. Last year Americans racked up an average of $1,054 in debt due to Christmas shopping.[i] The smart bet is that will only increase this year.
Enter the third villain this Christmas season: the gifts of the Magi.
The Magi are an iconic part of the Christmas story. Unbelievably, a group of philosopher-astronomers from the East (probably Persia) had knowledge that only a handful in all of Israel had: a Savior-King has been born in Bethlehem. Following the prophecies, they made their trek to Bethlehem to meet this Savior-King. When they arrived, “they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”[ii]
And they do not come empty handed. They come bearing three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each of these gifts has meaningful symbolism befitting the child-King. Items of great value, they proclaimed that Jesus was the King who would restore Israel.[iii]
Those gifts, according to many, were the impetus for the tradition of gift giving at Christmas time.[iv] The tradition began with humble origins and remained that way for a long time. Two popular books show just how much gift giving has changed in just this past century. If you pick up O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (1905) you find a husband buying his wife one present, a set of combs, and the woman buying her husband one present, a chain for his pocket watch. Or turn over to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie (1935) and you find that the kids’ haul on Christmas consisted of tin cups, peppermint candy, small cakes, and a penny.
Fast forward a hundred years to today and I chuckle to think of how my children would respond if the zenith of their Christmas presents was a shiny new cup. Behold, the power of consumerism! And truly, this is not a child’s problem.
We are beings directed and shaped by our desires. There are few things that form that desire as much as the stuff of the modern world: burgers, steaks, electronics, clothes, cars, sports equipment, and remodeled kitchens. Each of these things promise happiness, and as we consume them, they shape us. Like salt water, as we indulge in consumerism, we only grow thirstier. And like cocaine, each hit of consumerism has a diminishing impact. Christmas 2018 has to be grander than Christmas 2017 which better have surpassed Christmas 2016.
Giving gifts is a wonderful reflection of not only the gifts of the Magi, but also the most important gift of Christmas: the gift God gives us of in the person of his Son. This Christmas, let’s consider how our gift giving is shaped by that gift first and not by our impulse to feed our appetite for consumption or to keep up with cultural expectations.
Maybe one way to do a check within your home about how healthy your culture of gift giving is is to ask your children (or grandchildren or spouse or friends) what Christmas is about and what does gift giving at Christmas mean in your home. What would it look like to have our gifts shaped by that question: how can every gift I give point back to God’s gift? That might change the gifts you buy, or the number of gifts, or your notes on those gifts? Or maybe it means that there are traditions you form in your home around outward generosity. One of the traditions in our home is to give our kids money for them to give away. We love participating with them in thinking about who they can bless with that gift.
The villain of consumerism is crouching at our door. May we reclaim the true heart of the gifts of the Magi this Christmas and break the grip of consumerism on our hearts.
[ii] Matthew 1:11