A Gathering Voices Post by Kate Ott
I love giving and getting presents. I am the person who wears or uses a gift immediately after receiving it. I put time and effort into choosing gifts for close friends and family. That said, I am uncomfortable with a Christmas season that inspires economic excess. As a parent, this discomfort raises the question of emphasizing Santa Claus versus Christ’s birth.
Now, I’m not about to put a bumper sticker on my car that says “Put Christ back in Christ-mas.” For me, the question is not about imposing my religious beliefs on a (now) mostly secular holiday originally co-opted and promoted to “Christianize” the world. Rather, I wonder what it means to think theologically and ethically about gift giving. I have a few ideas.
Let’s get out of the Santa vs Jesus dichotomy. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the practice of lying to children for any reason. Children are much wiser, astute, and thoughtful than adults admit. While there may be some benefit in the collective practice of “believing in the unseen,” Santa Claus is utilized more often as a behavior management system (you better be good or Santa won’t bring you anything) than an imaginary motivation for giving without strings attached (Santa achieves the feat of giving to everyone in one night, asking nothing in return). Granted, the pervasiveness of Santa makes it difficult to “just tell the truth.” How about instead of feeding the consumerist versions, we talk about Christian history and practices that gave rise to Santa Claus?
For example, in my household we celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas on Dec 6th with small gifts that are based in necessity not extravagance. This practice builds a bridge to the historical tradition of how Santa Claus came to be, acknowledging that it was a tradition created by people, not something that originates with Jesus. Alternatively or in addition, we could connect gift-giving at Christmas to the Magi, a story that can be told visually to children using a manger scene. Focusing on the Magi also encourages learning about other cultural traditions like Three King’s Day.
Even if we altered how we talk about the reason for gift-giving, we still in need to address the practice itself. Let’s move away from the consumerist stress to economically, ecologically, and relationally sustainable gift-giving. The celebration of Christ’s birth should not be counter to the values of care for creation, stewardship of resources, or love of neighbor. Consider the following:
- In our house Santa only brings one gift per person. The single Santa gift reminds us that the Magi each gave Jesus one gift. As family and friends we give each other plenty of other gifts; so there is no shortage. This practice shifts the emphasis away from Santa to our family gift-giving.
- One year we took all of our beginner children’s books and packaged up boxes for younger cousins with notes from our children describing what they loved about these stories. Recently, we bought story books for cousins who live in different geographic locations. Then we recorded a YouTube video of us reading the story.
- For most of the adults, we buy a small gift that represents their hobbies or tastes and then make a donation in their name to a charity.
- My partner’s extended family chooses one person for whom they will buy a gift rather than everyone buying for multiple people.
- For secret someone exchanges or small gifts for teachers and colleagues, we have started to make soup, cookies, ornaments, and fleece pillows or blankets (a short visit to a local fabric store makes this a fun activity for kids).
- Our church organizes gift-giving for families in our area who cannot afford to buy gifts. Have the family shop together for these gifts and consider making them of equal value to what Santa brings to your house.
- Combine a present with a charity to teach kids about global needs. One year we bought stuffed animal pigs, ducks, etc. for cousins and gave Heifer Project animal shares. Another time we gave gifts like soccer balls and school supplies with donations in the children’s names to Unicef inspired gifts.
This is not an exhaustive list. Nor do these examples represent “the” theological or ethical answer to gift-giving at Christmas. Instead, my hope is to inspire intentionality about giving that promotes Christian values and transform Christmas into more than a holiday experience of “stuff.” Children learn values from our ritual holiday practices. Which values do you want your children to learn this Christmas?