The Giving of Gifts at Christmas
Because we Americans are so used to seeing presents piled up under the Christmas Tree, we tend to forget that Christmas is Jesus' Birthday, and not our special day [except for those blessed ones actually born on December 25]. Actually the exchange of gifts is a lovely gesture and merits its tradition; however as Americans we like to do things to excess, if we do them at all.
How did the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas begin? I bet you already know, if you think about it . . .
With the Magi coming to worship the Savior King at Epiphany. Until the last few generations in the Catholic Church the season of Advent was one of penance, but practiced more arduously. Gift-giving was, as it ought to be still, was what we, the penitent Catholic gave up for the Christ Child, and this took place before Christmas, not Christmas Day. Christmas Day was for a treat after four weeks of self-denial in some way, each befitting the age and circumstance of the child old enough to do so.
In fact, just as the fantasy of Santa Claus was developed from a real Saint, a bishop, Saint Nicholas, so too, the tradition of leaving a snack for Santa was borrowed from the little treats that children gladly offered up to the Christ Child, spiritually. The little acts of penance were marked by placing a small piece of candy in a specially decorated box, and come Christmas Eve, the box was sealed and wrapped and placed with the family crèche or under the tree, after that, too became customary. Christmas Day it was opened and passed around between the children, in honor of the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ Child and in honor of Our Lady who was immaculately conceived and bore our Savior King!
Eventually as prosperity was generalized and as secularization became a force that threatened simple piety, these practices waned and the giving of gifts became man-centered and a sumptuous practice with much commerciality. The merchants certainly benefit but the Christ Child, to whom we owe everything, was no longer the central focus! How could we let this happen? Back then the focus was on humility, first and foremost the humility of Jesus Who consented to be born in a lowly stable, and the humility we ought to have before Him, and before each other. Not just simple modesty, but humility, a true poverty of self-esteem and detachment from the things of this world. Modernity has no understanding of this virtue and considers anyone taking it seriously to be strange. How far we have come to have advanced so little in the devout life. This is what ought to be thought of as strange and yet it isn't. Below is a little poem by the artist and writer, Christina Rossetti who wrote during a time of lavish Christmas celebrations, during the Victorian era. It is a simple yet elegant way of putting us in the right spirit of Advent and Christmas.
What Can I Give Him
What can I Give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring Him a lamb;
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part:
Yet what can I give Him,
Give Him my heart!