Christmas Gifts Fit for a Kingdom
By Kendra Langdon Juskus
Flourish Magazine, Fall 2009
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” -Matthew 2:11
Gifts are good.
We forget this sometimes. On the one hand, we may forget that gifts are good because, especially during the holiday season, our lives our fraught with the frustration and busyness of gift-buying. (Notice the phrase “gift-buying.” Gift-giving is a joy. Gift-buying is rarely so.)
On the other hand, those of us seeking prudent use of creation’s resources are prone to demonizing gifts, or at least demonizing gifts of the cheap, plastic, extraneously wrapped kind. Our desire to be responsible, to give wisely (and generously, in the truest sense of the word), can be hampered by paralyzing guilt or frustration, taking all goodness out of the generosity we seek.
But when a good gift is found, and gratefully received, there is meaning and joy in the exchange, and the emotions and connections forged between giver and receiver are, well, priceless.
The gifts of the Magi to the Christ-child hold this weighty joy. They are extravagant and strange, yet meaningful to their recipient. Traditional interpretations of the Magi’s’ gifts see the bestowal of gold, incense, and myrrh on a baby as indicative of that child’s cosmic identity and destiny. The gift of gold is appropriate for a king. Frankincense may symbolize priesthood. And myrrh, a traditional embalming substance, foreshadows death. More abstractly, the three gifts may symbolize virtue, prayer, and suffering, respectively.
These gifts were not bestowed upon the newborn baby because they might be fun to play with, or because the Magi didn’t want to arrive at the party empty-handed. No, these gifts were surprising and sacred, originating from the depths of poetry and prophecy. Who gives embalming fragrance to a newborn? A giver with a symbolic understanding of that Baby’s own sublime and heart-wrenching gift to humanity.
The Myth of Christmas Past
How can we, in our feeble attempts at generosity, possibly honor the sacred weight of those first gifts given in Christ’s honor? There is much reference, in conversations about simplicity and stewardship, to returning to Christmas traditions of yesteryear in order to refocus our celebration on the “true spirit” of Christmas. But the Christmas of yesteryear is a myth.
The Christmas holiday itself began with no direct reference to the date of Christ’s birth, but instead as a fourth-century Christianization of a pagan celebration. Since then, the holiday has been exploited as an excuse for over-the-top seasonal revelry, and, when that carousing was quelled by Puritanical and genteel forces, developed into a convenient merchandising ploy.
The first American advertisements for Christmas gifts appeared in the early 1800s, around the same time that the story of St.
Nicholas became popular in its near-present incarnation—not only for its quaint, homey appeal, but also as a mechanism for bringing Christmas inside the home, and away from the more social Christmas revelry that had previously threatened societal structures with its comingling of classes in the public square. Since the time when Christmas gift-giving became a practice of the parlor instead of the neighborhood, the tune of the holiday’s commercialization has been largely the same, changing only in response to humanity’s capacity to produce (and consume) more.
So we deceive ourselves when we seek a return to some mythically simple Christmastime of olde. But we do not deceive ourselves about the sacrifice of God made flesh in the wet, wrinkled body of a baby boy. Our best attempts at hallowing and honoring His gift will reflect the spirit of sacrifice, grace, and knowing that dwelt with creation in Christ—a spirit that precedes Currier and Ives, and one that demands of us something more along the lines of reflection, gratitude, and hope than sentimentality.
It can be disappointing to realize that there’s not much of an honorable gift-giving tradition for us to recapture at Christmas. But it can also be liberating.
Much of the movement toward gifts that bestow more than a physical object on their recipient is less a reclamation than a reimagining of Christmas gifting. The resources of knowledge, creativity, communication, and cross-cultural interaction that we can access today are more abundant now than at any other time in history. When we mingle those capacities with the invitation to live, even now, in Christ’s kingdom, we approach the deeply significant gift-giving that the Magi first demonstrated.
This is exactly the sentiment of an image created by the Advent Conspiracy. In this picture, a woman with a shopping cart stands face-to-face with a regal wise-man on a camel. Her power of purchasing and knowledge meets his spirit of deep and grateful generosity, and between them, a revolution of giving is born.
The Advent Conspiracy began as just such a Christmas revolution. In 2006, five pastors gathered their communities in a joint effort to “worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all” during the Christmas season. In partnering with the Advent Conspiracy, churches encourage members to buy just one less present at Christmas, and to give time, a listening ear, or an equivalent gift to their loved ones instead. The money they would have spent on a present is given to a project that will literally help save a life. Over 1,000 churches partnering with the Advent Conspiracy raised more than $3 million for relief projects around the world last year.
Good Gifts Take Root
“A good gift is one that benefits the recipient,” says Danielle Flood, public relations and communications manager for the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO). True in its simplicity, this assertion captures the spirit behind the Advent Conspiracy—a spirit through which many organizations knit together the needs and gifts of land and people.
ECHO, which is headquartered on a farm and research center in Florida, equips those in agricultural settings to reduce hunger and improve the lives of the poor through agricultural and environmental innovation. It offers a gift catalog with “products” for assisting impoverished rural areas in bringing their land and their communities back to life: the Gift of Grafting, or the Gift of a Crop to diversify a family’s nutrition, or the Gift of a Book to help missionaries in agricultural settings find solutions to the farming troubles that deprive their communities of their daily bread.
A gift that benefits its recipient extends the meaning of gift-giving beyond the give-and-take of two people. Like the gifts of the Magi, the best gifts intimate truths about destiny and identity. The gift of a tree to a family in Haiti may mean not only fruit from that tree to meet the family’s immediate nutritional needs, but also the eventual restoration of agricultural land through the benefits of that three’s root system as it holds soil in place and filters clean water into streams and rivers.
Plant with Purpose, which nurtures both a healthy creation and healthy communities through reforestation and sustainable
agriculture, offers the opportunity to give such enduring gifts.
“A good gift is one that empowers the rural poor and enables them to provide for their families,” explains Corbyn Small, Plant With Purpose’s outreach coordinator. “A good gift is not just a handout, but an investment in everyday lives and families. Just like you would carefully select the present that best fits the needs of a loved one, Plant With Purpose comes alongside rural farmers to help meet their specific needs.” The gift of ten trees ($10) may not only rehabilitate arid cropland, but in the restoration of that land, also provide a source of income for an impoverished family. It may also help keep that family intact, since, with a reliable income, a farmer may no longer have to travel away from his village and family for work. The implications of such a gift run deep.
Care of Creation, a missions-oriented creation care organization, concentrates its deeply meaningful gifts on the country of Kenya, where giving a tree through its catalog helps Kenyan communities “raise their standard of living and encourages a sense of place and permanence,” says Ed Brown, Care of Creation’s executive director. “It contributes in a meaningful way to the ability of a person or a family to be self-sustaining.” When a Christmas gift of 10, 50, or 100 trees is given through Care of Creation, the person in whose name the gift is given receives a card featuring the work of Care of Creation in the communities his or her gift empowers.
These organizations are not listed and detailed to induce guilt or self-righteousness in us during the holiday season. That is the last thing any of us needs, and an inappropriate response to God’s grace. But the gift-giving stories told here are examples of a generosity that, like that of the Magi, reaches beneath the actual exchange of presents to a place of rich symbolism, deep love, and kingdom promise.
When we collapse, exhausted and disappointed, after a day of Christmas shopping, or even when we agonize over the right charity or ministry to give to, we miss the point. The Magi’s gifts to Jesus at his birth indicated that his ministry in the creation he made would be characterized by virtue, prayer, and suffering. It would also be characterized by a revolutionary hope that extends its power into our lives, even now. The reality of Christ’s kingdom, already but not yet among us, is the “spirit of Christmas” as the Christ-child’s followers understand it. It is the Spirit that fills us to overflowing, with hope to share.
Learn more about the Advent Conspiracy
Check out ECHO’s Gift Catalog
Give a variety of meaningful gifts through Plant With Purpose. Visit Plant With Purpose’s Alternative Christmas Gifts page.
Support Kenyan farmers with Care of Creation