Christmas Day is, of course, the liturgical solemnity of Christ’s nativity, a most joyful event for humankind. God enters the world. Now, this same God has already been incarnate for nine months, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. It is on Christmas, though, that He leaves that womb and enters into the world. And the world rejoices.
At Christmas, the manifestation of such joy is in the giving of gifts. In fact, so much giving goes on that a whole industry has arisen, goading us on to buy gifts upon gifts and so they make money. And we lament the commercialization of Christmas. We lament that the retail industry begins pushing the joyful aspects of Christmas ahead so that there is no more any Advent – a season of penance. We lament that this happy Christmas season starts even in October. We lament that the retailers wish us “Season’s Greetings,” instead of “Merry Christmas” and we assume that Jesus is being pushed out of Christmas.
I recommend putting things into perspective. First, Christmas is a liturgical feast day. The very name – Christ-Mass – should tell us what the day is really about. It’s for the celebration of the Mass in honor of the Nativity of Christ. Hence, all Christians should go to Mass. There, we encounter the Infant Lord in Holy Communion. And, that’s really all there is to Christmas.
We have cultural traditions, though; very good ones that help put us in the right disposition for this special, liturgical day. One of these is the giving of gifts. It reminds us that
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that all who believe in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16)
The incarnation of the Son of God is the ultimate gift from God to all of us. It was on Christmas day that Jesus entered into the world as a gift to us all; we recall this beautiful fact by giving gifts to others.
What does it mean to give? It’s actually a very profound idea and very fundamental to Christian doctrine, as it is the manifestation of love. Love is what Christianity is all about: God loves us and so He gives to us, as in the above quote from John’s Gospel. Elsewhere, John says,
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. (1 Jn 4:10)
Again, God loves us and gave us His Son. Love and giving go together. Love is the act of the will, leading us out of ourselves and towards the beloved. The basic movement of love is from self to other. We want to give our very self to our beloved and we manifest such desire in the form of a gift.
An interesting observation is that if giving is a manifestation of love, then taking – the opposite of giving – is a manifestation of indifference, which is the opposite of love. And here is the litmus test of love: do I give or do I take? For example, a young man claims to love a young woman, but if all he really wants is to take from her, if all he sees in her is beauty to be possessed as a gift to himself, then he does not really love her. He is indifferent to her; he really loves himself and so wants to give himself good gifts, which is all she is, much like a nice car or any other possession. Even among people who genuinely love each other there sometimes occur moments of selfishness, where one expects something of the other; in such moments, there is no love.
God only gives; He never takes. In fact, we have nothing to give Him; as Creator, He possesses all. He has created us with nothing to give, just to prove that His love is real and He will never take from us. He comes to us in human form, to manifest without a doubt His love. This is our joy and this is why Christmas is a day of great joy.
This joy again manifests itself in giving. We give gifts at Christmas to share in the love of God. The joy is in the giving, not in the receiving. This is why giving focuses on children: the most profound expression of unselfish, self-giving love is to be found in parents. Parents experience great joy in giving gifts to their children. My father was not a Christian, as far as I could tell, but he loved giving us gifts on Christmas morning; it was his great joy. This is also why there is so much emphasis on Christian charity at Christmastime; Christians give all year long because it is the manifestation of our love of neighbor, but in honor of the Great Gift from heaven we have a special desire to do so at Christmas. I admit one of my favorite works of literature is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a remarkable story of a conversion of generosity.
What are we to think of the commercialization of Christmas? Frankly, I am not so concerned. I want to buy gifts to give to my beloveds and I need a retail industry to help me do so. This retail industry is composed of countless people who need to work and I am happy to see them employed; they too want to buy gifts for their own children. I admit the advertising is a bit much, but the emphasis on Christmas in the secular retail industry is actually remarkable. Of course, they don’t say “Merry Christmas” to their customers, because so many of their customers are not Christian and this is a holiday for Christians. I must remember that stores are secular entities, not religious; their primary goal is to stay in business and earn a living; they cannot do this by irritating customers and driving them to the competition. All of this is normal and expected; I have no complaints as I am grateful this retail industry supports my feast of Christmas so well. So well, in fact, that the whole world knows of the great Solemnity of Christmas! This secular, commercial industry has accidentally spread the Gospel. Thanks be to God!
And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Lk 2:7)