After all, it is entirely possible that the tradition of giving gifts at the end of December came from Christianity. Consider the example of the Magi who visited Christ Jesus. The Epiphany of our Lord celebrates their visit, and their kingly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-12). Or consider that St. Nicholas was a real person… a bishop of the town called Myra on the coast of Asia Minor. Over the years, legends about him grew, primarily for his works of charity: giving gifts to the poor, to help keep them free from slavery and poverty. For a long time, the tradition was for children to put out their boots on St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th), and the good and bad children received sweets and coal, respectively (though we have to wonder… would a cold child without firewood appreciate the house-warming coal more?).
Best of all is the gift God the Father gave to us: His Son Christ Jesus took on human flesh and was born among us: to suffer, die, and rise, to forgive our sins and raise us to life everlasting. This self-giving gift proceeds from God’s perfect and overflowing love, and surpasses every earth-bound blessing we could possibly think of. While an overload of sweets or an armful of the latest gadgets from the store might satisfy us for the time being, the peace and joy of being set to stand rightly before God almighty… that’s something money cannot buy. Luther’s Small Catechism describes this when explaining the Second Article of the Creed: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
Now, all this suggests that our gift-giving impulse at this time of the year is not wrong, it is good. We want to give good things to our beloved ones, because that is how love acts. God is sanctifying us, by His Word working in us to want to do good works. This includes good works of love and self-giving. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). So when we think about giving gifts to others, consider what makes for a lasting gift: not to help them indulge in worldly, here-today-gone-tomorrow pleasures. The technology section is full of all sorts of new toys, but I have yet to hear of a parent who thought the newest and latest gadgets made their kids more faithful Christians. Give gifts to help build one another up in Christian virtues, the tools and wisdom to love one another as Christ first loved us.
To that end, I have two specific suggestions. First… I don’t know your family or what might best make them smile and have joy in their vocations. But I do always see books and Christian “swag” available at a variety of places nearby (We live in an area that is still “culturally” Christian). Suggestion #1: if you’re going to buy books or Christian-themed “swag” (which is a great way to teach and celebrate our faith), buy it from one of our in-house stores. Concordia Publishing House belongs to our own church body, and they have a variety of books and gifts available. Each of their books is written by a Lutheran pastor, and vetted to be doctrinally solid. I cannot say the same for everything you’ll see on sale in the “Spirituality” the local dollar store. Good doctrine matters, and builds for a lastingly good gift for anyone you love. I’m not in the business of doing commercials, but for the sake of the flock here in this place, when you go to purchase Christian books, go over to https://www.cph.org to see what’s there.
Suggestion #2: Give to the poor. We are supposed to give to take care of our own households. God provides you with good things so that you can take care of your own. (1 Tim 5:8 says: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”) Yet Christian charity is not limited to that… there is good we can do to help others also. Even amid inflated prices and poor consumer sentiment across the entire country, we are still better off than many others. It’s possible that recently, on the day of Thanksgiving, you yourself were thanking God for what you did have. There are many ways to give to those who are in need. This isn’t about enabling anyone’s vices… don’t go give someone money to enable an addictive vice. But if a gift of food, or helping with Christmas presents can assist a neighbor in need to take care of their own, that is a good thing. Galatians 6:10 says: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” This might mean helping out with the food bank at Zion, supporting the Christmas Family, the students at the Seminary, or best yet – personal, local acts of service to support people you know here and now.
In my short time here, I’ve been most proud of our congregation at two points: 1) when a member confesses the Christian faith purely, according to the scriptures and Lutheran confessions, and 2) seeing people (men, women, or youth) acting in unfeigned, unforced service for the good of those in need. I don’t often publicize these events, because I don’t want to put people into the center of attention unwanted. We do these things because of Jesus, and want to give Him the glory for it. But you have to know this: self giving love (sometimes called “charity”) is an amazing Christian virtue, and can transform the world around us for the better. When you love one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt, and work towards their good according to God’s Word… your work is not in vain. During Advent and looking forward to Christmas, we are blessed to be able to love one another with that kind of charity, because God first loved us, and gave His Son for us as the best gift of all time.