Why do we give gifts at Christmas? The materialistic part of us might calculate that giving a gift is likely to result in us receiving a gift in return. The Christian tradition of giving Christmas gifts comes from at least three sources.
First, a Christian called Nicholas of Myra, a real-life, 4th-century Byzantine monk is reputed to have handed out bags of money to the poor. St Nicholas is a possible origin of the modern day Santa Claus tradition of secret gifts arriving by night. Some traditions even have him out of modesty throwing purses with gold coins in a window so no one would see him. Another version has him throwing the purse down a chimney.
Secondly, gift giving reminds us of the wise men giving gifts to the baby Jesus. It has been observed that these gifts, given as an act of worship, provided for Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous plot.
Thirdly, giving gifts reminds us that God is the most generous gift giver of all. He gave us His only Son to die on the cross for us and save us from sin. This is the best present of all.
Sadly, in New Zealand these days, Christmas can often reflect excesses of the pagan celebrations of December that the early Christians sought to replace. In winter festivals like the raucous Roman festival in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture, people would lift their spirits by drinking to excess and giving one another many gifts, such as pottery figurines, edible treats like fruit and nuts, and festive candles.
Interestingly, the three examples of Christian gift giving are quite different to that. The biggest gift of all was from God to all humanity. The wise men gave precious gifts to Jesus as an act of worship. St Nicholas focused on giving to help the poor. May we all receive again God’s gift of grace. May we respond in worship by giving generously back to God’s mission. And may we give to those in real need.