Part of the magic of Christmas is giving and receiving gifts. The presents might be simple, homemade, and practical or expensive and luxurious, but they represent the love we have for one another. To put it simply, we give treasures to the ones we treasure.
For Catholics, giving Christmas gifts connects us with the traditions of St. Nicholas. The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch version of the saint’s name, Sint Nikolaas. Rather than the Coca Cola-swilling chubby elf of American Christmas, the true “St. Nick” was a fourth-century bishop from present-day Turkey who rescued children sold into slavery and gave gold to a poor man who was worried that he would have to sell his children. St. Nicholas’ feast day is Dec. 6, so the celebrations soon merged with Christmas, and children and gifts became a deeply rooted part of the Yuletide season.
The tradition of gift giving at Christmas goes back even further, however. It connects to the story of the Magi who saw a sign in the heavens and traveled to Bethlehem to offer gifts of tribute to the newborn King of the Jews. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh symbolized Jesus’ status as a king, priest, and suffering servant.
The tradition of giving gifts is therefore much more than a pleasant motivation to do yet more shopping. As we give gifts, we should remember these deeper roots of the gift-giving tradition, but we should also be aware that the tradition of giving gifts takes us back even further than St. Nicholas and the Magi.
The awesome offering
From time immemorial the main religious action in all societies was offering sacrifices. The pagan motivation for sacrifice was an attempt to appease the gods. Primitive people believed there were gods and goddesses behind the various forces of nature. The sun, moon, and stars were the forms the gods took. The natural powers on which their lives depended — or which might destroy their fragile existence — were controlled by capricious, powerful, supernatural beings.
To have a good harvest, be protected from enemies, and be delivered from disaster, those powerful forces had to be satisfied. The way to appease and please someone more powerful than yourself is to offer them a gift. So primitive people offered the gods a sacrifice of that which was most precious to them: life itself. Thus the logic demanded that they sacrifice human beings. Old, worn-out human beings were not a good sacrifice, so they offered young maidens or strong warriors.
While this is the primitive foundation of the idea of sacrifice, the Hebrews moved on from human sacrifice to offer animals, grain, or wine instead. Furthermore, their understanding of the reason for sacrifice developed. They were no longer simply trying to appease an unpredictable and angry god. Instead, their offerings were made as an act of thanksgiving or a request for forgiveness.
In the Old Testament, the Jews offered three types of sacrifice: to seal a covenant, as a sin offering, or as a thank offering. A Jew would go to the temple and offer a bull, goat, lamb, or dove as a sacrifice, or they might offer grain or wine. The gift was offered as an act of thanksgiving to God, or if they had sinned, the sacrifice was made as an offering asking for forgiveness. They could also seal their covenant agreement of faithfulness to God through a sacrifice.
The mystery of the Mass
The sacrifices and offerings of the Old Testament were a development from primitive religion, but they were also a foreshadowing of the sacrifice Jesus Christ would make on the cross. Jesus’ death gathered up and fulfilled all three aspects of the Jewish sacrificial system.
Jesus’ crucifixion was soon understood as a sacrifice paying the price of humanity’s sin. It was also an act of thanksgiving for forgiveness, and it sealed the covenant of grace between God and the human race. As these three meanings of sacrifice came together, so did the three elements that had been offered in sacrifice by the Jews. They offered a lamb; Jesus was the Lamb of God. They offered grain; Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). They offered wine; Jesus said, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). When St. Paul taught about the Eucharist, he said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
As we celebrate Mass, we commemorate this rich history of salvation. At Mass we offer bread and wine which is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Just before we receive the fruit of this sacrifice, the priest holds up the bread and wine and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
Finally, we remember that the word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Every Mass is therefore a living commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and it is also a thanksgiving meal during which we offer our thanks and praise to God for our redemption in Christ.
Sacrifice or fellowship meal?
One of the problems with Catholic worship today is that too many Catholics have forgotten the sacrificial element of the Mass in favor of seeing Mass as no more than a fellowship meal. Mass is a gathering of God’s people to celebrate his gift of love. It is a family gathering, but we must not forget that it is also a sacrifice.
It is important to remember this because the essence of a sacrifice is giving something — not just receiving. When we come to Mass, we should be prepared to make a very real offering. We offer the bread and wine that becomes the Body of Christ, and we make a financial offering through our practice of stewardship, but there is more to our offering at Mass than these things.
Most of all we come to offer ourselves — our souls and our bodies — as a living sacrifice. We bring to God not only our gifts, our talents, our time, and our abilities, but we also offer up our sorrows, worries, fears, and sins. As the priest lifts up the gifts at the Mass, we should see ourselves being lifted up, and as the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, so we too are to be taken, broken, blessed, and given to the world.
Giving and God’s great gift
The gifts we give at Christmas are therefore rooted in the ancient sacrificial system that is fulfilled in the mystery of the Mass. There we not only offer ourselves, but we give thanks most of all for God’s great gift of himself.
Our actions of giving also point to one of the best ways to talk about God: as the great self-giver. From the moment God spoke creation into being, he has been giving of himself. All life is a gift from the heart of God. God gives and gives and gives again because it is his nature to give. He gives as naturally and fully as a waterfall gushes with water. As the water can do nothing other than flow downhill and over the falls, so God cannot be God if he does not give. Giving is his nature. Giving is his being. As God lives, God gives.
If this is so, then as we give gifts, we are being godlike. We were created in his image, so it follows that if he is the great self-giver, we should be givers, too. Every time we make a sacrifice or an offering — no matter how small — we are approaching the nature of God and becoming more like him. To grow up into maturity in the faith is to learn how to give joyfully and generously.
The opposite is also true. If giving is a sign of maturity in the faith, being only concerned with getting is a sign of immaturity. Furthermore, if God is the great giver, Satan is the great getter. In his pride he believes he is due to receive all praise, glory, and worship. He lives for himself. He wants to get, not give, and those who refuse to be givers reflect not God but Satan.
At Christmas we have the urge to splurge. We have the desire to find wonderful gifts for our loved ones and to give with goodness, grace, beauty, and truth. As we do, we reflect the great giving goodness of God who did not hold back but gave even his only begotten son for our salvation.
And that ultimately is what we celebrate at Christmas — that God is such a generous giver, and he “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).