By Dr. Jerry Rankin
I cannot begin to identify with those diligent, organized people who complete their Christmas shopping before the calendar turns to December. It is not that I resent those who brag about completing their list in after-Thanksgiving sales, or the extremists who get their Christmas shopping done in August; I relish organizing a task and getting it done in advance. But I have never gotten on track with early Christmas shopping. Seldom is a gift bought in the Rankin household prior to a week or two before Christmas.
I donʼt mind shopping when I know what Iʼm looking for and where to find it. But the idea of browsing the mall, looking at all the hyped merchandise to find something appropriate for those on your list is worse than purgatory. It is exhausting to spend the day fighting traffic, maneuvering among congested shoppers and succumbing to the commercialization of what should be a sacred holiday until your eyes glaze-over and mind grows numb.
More times than not we fall back on the simple tactic, or is it a cop-out, of cash for the grandkids and gift cards for others in the family. After all, we reason, better for them to get something for themselves they really want than unneeded apparel or decorative item that will go in the attic. There is something about exchanging a wish-list, but the lack of surprise when one gets what they asked for contradicts the joy and spontaneous idea of a gift being something unexpected and undeserved.
Why do we spend money we donʼt have to give people things they donʼt need at Christmas? Is it an expression of love to family members and others with whom we share special relationships or duty constrained by tradition? Where does the selflessness and authentic spirit of giving dissipate into obligation–getting a gift for the paper boy and your childʼs teacher, buying something for a co-worker and getting something for a neighbor just in case they get you a gift? The contingencies that have to be considered in Christmas shopping are endless.
Is this a legitimate expression of celebrating Christmas, or has our tradition been not so subtly engrained by the merchants who exploit the sacredness of what giving should be all about? We celebrate God giving His Son to save a lost world–the ultimate expression of selflessness and love. The wise men initiated the practice of others giving gifts, but this was to the One who is worthy of such beneficence. The only appropriate gift befitting what God has given to us is to give nothing less than our lives in renewed devotion to Him.
Just as we give ourselves to God, should not our gifts to others be symbolic of our love and commitment to them whether family or friend. I honestly get more joy and gratification out of finding a gift I know will be appreciated and valued, and maybe even needed, for those on my list than receiving gifts from others.
Unfortunately the Christmas season creates an expectation of exchanging gifts. I give gifts to my wife at Christmas, on her birthday, our anniversary, motherʼs day and maybe valentines day. But the most meaningful gifts are the spontaneous surprises– unexpected gifts that are not generated by specific occasions. Perhaps exchanging gifts at Christmas should be a celebration of giving of ourselves to each other throughout the year. After all, what God gave to us was not limited to a one-time event but an ongoing relationship that is eternal.
Dr. Jerry Rankin served as president of the International Mission Board from June 1993 to July 2010 and blogs at The Rankin File.