I have seen a lot of gift giving guides out there this season. I have seen guides that are trying to make shopping and organization easier. I have seen guides that are giving ideas for different age groups. I have seen all kinds of different guides. And let’s be honest. Gift giving is one of the most stressful things about the holiday season. From the financial stress, to figuring out the perfect gift, to the expectation of giving in certain situations, this whole let-me-show-you-how-much-I-love-and-appreciate-you-with-a-material-possession is not always fun.
So what do we do about it? Do we just trudge through another holiday season complaining about how the real spirit of Christmas has gotten lost in all the presents under the tree? Or can we change our hearts and in turn maybe change our attitudes?
Last week I read the classic Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi” with my students. I think the characters from that story Della and Jim can relate to the stress of giving gifts at Christmas. Yet, they carried it off gracefully, so much so that the narrator says, “of all who give gifts these two are the wisest.” And he ends by saying, “They are the magi.” So what can we learn, both from these literary magi and from the biblical magi about gift giving? Here is a gift giving guide, Everyday Abiding style.
How to give like a magi:
1) Give with a glad heart.
In the story “The Gift of the Magi,” Della knows money is tight and she begins saving for a present months in advance. She does her best to save a penny here and a penny there, knowing she wants to get the perfect gift for Jim. And when she realizes that she only has $1.87 she is willing to go to desperate measures to get money for Jim’s present. Della sells her long beautiful hair in order to buy Jim the perfect present. Once she has the present in hand, she is not upset about her hair nor does she pout about what she has done, but she goes home excited with anticipation of giving Jim his present.
The wise men were told by Herod to go find the king, so we don’t know how they felt about that journey initially. But once the star appeared to them, the scripture tells us they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” and as soon as they see Jesus with his mother Mary, they fell down, worshiped, and offered him gifts. Even in the few details that we get about the wise men, it is obvious that they were honored to see the child Jesus.
In both cases, the giver is sharing a gift with a really special person and when we have those special people to buy for, giving with a glad heart is easy. But we all have to buy for those people who have everything, who are nothing like us, who never seem satisfied, or who we just really don’t know. When it comes to buying for those, our heart seems a whole more frustrated than it does glad. In those cases, focus on giving with a glad heart more than you actually focus on the present that you buy. In those cases, ask yourself questions like – what can I buy them that will express how much I care for them? And if you are now thinking…But I really don’t care for them, then, ask yourself – what gift can I give them that will show the love of Christ? I mean, even Christians need those gifts. And knowing God’s love will be seen through the gift, it’s hard not to give with a glad heart.
2) Focus on the person.
In “The Gift of the Magi,” both Della and Jim know the perfect present for the other. They each know what possession the other holds most valuable and they buy gifts to compliment that prized possession. They know each other well and they understand what would make them happy. They are more focused on each other than they are worried about themselves or money.
Likewise, the wise men focused on the star the entire journey. Why? Because it led to the Messiah, and they knew that. I am sure they understood they were going to find a king, but I don’t think they realized just how great a king they would find. Regardless, they were focused on Jesus. They came prepared with presents. They carried them on their journey and they were willing to journey all that way, just to find that one person, our King.
In each case, the gifts and the exchange was about the person, not about the fact that it was Christmas time or the expectation of the event. I know many times we give presents purely because that is what we are expected to do. It definitely takes some of the joy out of gift giving. But try focusing on the person you are buying for, more than the begrudged expectation requiring you to buy the gift. Chances are that it is not that person who is holding the expectation, but some holiday tradition.
So how can you increase your focus on the person you are buying for? Remind yourself of what you know about this person. Have they ever done anything really nice to you or someone else you love? Focus on that. What are the good qualities this person exhibits? Can you find gifts that complements that? Is the person a great encourager? Buy them cards, nice pens, and a set of stamps to make their encouraging easier. Do they love to cook? Buy them pretty measuring cups or a state of the art knife, something that most people would never slow down and buy themselves, but it sure does make life easier and more fun.
When we think about how we can serve the person through our gift, and less about the fact that we have to give it, gift giving comes easier.
3) Give a meaningful gift.
In “The Gift of the Magi” Della sells her beautiful hair so that Jim can have a watch chain worthy of the heirloom pocket watch he carries on a leather strap. Jim sells his pocket watch so that he can get Della jeweled combs that are almost as beautiful as her cascading hair. Because they are so close, they know the perfect gift to get for the other. They know what the other person wants most in the world.
The same is true for the wise men. I don’t know if they understood many of the prophecies from the Old Testament, or if they were led by the Spirit, but their gifts could not have been more telling of the life of Jesus. First, they gave Him gold, because He is our eternal king. Then, the frankincense shows Jesus not just as king, but demonstrates his priesthood as well. And finally, the myrrh, the bittersweet gift alluding of Jesus’ death to come. I’m not sure the depth of knowledge that Mary and Joseph carried as they received these gifts for Jesus, but the pointed gifts the magi brought definitely help show us the depth of God’s plan.
So how can we give meaningful gifts like these? Well, I think I alluded to this earlier, but really focus on giving a gift that shows the love of Jesus. You can always give a Bible or a devotional or faith based book, but make sure if you do that, give one that will actually matter to the person. Give one that is tailored to their needs or interests. Maybe a Duck Commander devotional for an outdoorsman or a journaling Bible for an artist. Don’t forget to focus on the person in order to find the most meaningful gift.
Also search your heart. What can you give that person that will have more sentimental value than monetary? A member of my Daddy’s church created a book for him. She included all of his scripture outlines with her notes, some of her favorite quotes from the messages, along with some other scriptures and pictures. The time, planning, and effort that goes into this gift make it impossible to place a price tag on it. This will be something that Daddy forever cherishes.
You may not always have the opportunity to give on this scale, but I think there is always an opportunity to give from the heart. Even if you are required to give to your third cousin that you haven’t seen in three years, go back to the grandparents you share. Is there a meaningful gift you can give? A family picture perhaps, a framed family recipe, or something that reminds you of the past you shared together. There is usually something when we take the time to look.
And if you are really stumped on how to give a meaningful gift to someone, pray about it. Don’t be afraid to pray those “little” prayers. If it is taking up space in your brain, then it is worth praying about and I promise God will reveal something.
4) Finally, give the gift of sacrifice.
In “The Gift of the Magi” both Della and Jim sacrificed their most prized possession so that the other could have a special gift, only to find out their gifts were useless because of the other’s sacrifice. But in the end, neither are upset. I think satisfied might be a better word. They may not have the material possession their heart long for, but each one felt surrounded in love. And that was made possible through sacrifice.
The wise men also sacrificed. They journeyed to find the King. They had to stop what they were doing and follow Herod’s orders, and while it may not have been by choice, I think the scripture proves their heart was in the right place. And they must have been open to the Spirit because they were receptive and listened to the dream warning them to return a different way. I am sure they realized their lives would be in danger if Herod ever found out, but they were willing to take that chance. They were willing to make that sacrifice.
To give a truly meaningful gift, it must come with sacrifice. And I don’t just mean money. I mean really most of us have learned to budget throughout the year so we have our Christmas cash waiting on us, so is that really a sacrifice?!? I think back to the story in the Bible where the widow gave out of her poverty. She gave all she had. She was willing to sacrifice for the church. Now I am not suggesting to give yourself broke. What I am suggesting is – think about what would be a sacrifice for you… time… energy…money… and find what you can do to give from that. The saying it is better to give than receive comes from giving out of sacrifice, learning and growing from the sacrifices we were willing to make for others.
And before you tune me out and feel all unworthy because this sounds like too big a task, do you know what makes me feel the most special? A gift that shows they sacrificed their thoughts. A gift that shows they really thought about me and who I was and what I like and what makes me tick. When I know someone has genuinely thought about me… I have taken up space in their brain… then that means more than anything I can unwrap in a box.
Gifts that take planning also show sacrifice. Is it a picture the two of you took together years ago that you have to dig up and frame? Is it a recipe you each hold dear so you have it printed on a tea towel? Is it a shirt with their favorite line from their favorite show printed on it? Is it a sign with their favorite bible verse on it? There are lots of gifts that demonstrate sacrifice that are still realistic.
I don’t think the magi really knew what they were starting when they gave those first three gifts to Jesus. I don’t think they realized what retail frenzy would ensue because they decided Jesus was worthy of gifts. But let that be a reminder to us. This gift giving madness started because of Jesus (only humans have tainted it) and when we give, let us have Jesus in mind. Let us give to each person as if we were giving to Jesus. If we keep that in mind, the narrator from “The Gift of the Magi” may say that we too “are the wisest. [We] are the magi.”