Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.
by Tom Beutel
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, frankincense and myrrh.
(Matthew 2:11, NIV)
As I write this, there are just 44 days until Christmas! Between American Thanksgiving and Christmas, the traditional Christmas shopping season, there are only 25 days this year as Thanksgiving falls relatively “late.” And, of course, Christmas displays have been popping up in retail stores for weeks. All of this raises the annual issue of gift-giving: good or bad, joyful or stressful, what, who, when?
There is much we could say about gift-giving, particularly in Western culture. It is true that often we spend too much on gifts, worry too much about what to give, and stress over getting the best “deals.” Some advocate doing away with gift-giving especially at Christmas and simply focusing on the true meaning of the holiday and on spending time with friends and loved ones.
But, this misses the point. Giving a gift is a chance to bring pleasure to another person; it is a chance to show that we care about and value someone. Ideally, thoughtful, appropriate gifts “carry with them a great deal of love.” (“Three Reasons to Engage in Gift Giving,” Forbes, Feb. 15, 2015) Psychologists have found that “giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. (“The Gift that Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself,” NY Times, December 11, 2007.)
When we think about gift-giving at Christmas, we often think about the gifts of the Three Wise Men recorded in Matthew 2:11 – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. “These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.” (“Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?” Bible History Daily, Oct 23, 2014). These gifts, like all good gifts, considered the one to whom they were given. It is important for us, too, to think about the person to whom a gift is to be given. This means that we have to know the person, and intentionally seek an appropriate gift.
If you have not read it for a while, the O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” is not only touching, but a good reminder of what is good about gift-giving at its best. Perhaps your ideas about Christmas gift-giving will be changed or bolstered by this classic story. Of course there are other inspiring Christmas stories, all worth a read or re-read at this time of year. Doing so will not only provide enjoyment, but, hopefully, serve to bring some much-needed perspective to Christmas gift-giving. Here are just a couple of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them.
- The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry, Project Gutenberg
- A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm
- The Seven Poor Travelers, Charles Dickens