There is a widening fissure between the modern American Christmas and biblical theology.
And while I agree with the movement to “put Christ back in Christmas”, that’s not what I’m getting at. I am concerned with the fundamental distortion of grace played out in gift giving.
Most of us can define the word “gift” easy enough. Dictionary.com puts it like this: “something bestowed or acquired without any particular effort by the recipient or without its being earned.” Biblically, this is described in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our salvation, our righteousness is a free gift—unearned—to us from God the Father through Jesus.
The first problem arises with good old Saint Nick. At the beginning of December, or perhaps depending on the amount of leverage needed to coerce good behavior, we begin telling our children that the only way Santa will favor their stocking is if they are good.
But wait a minute, I thought Santa was bringing gifts! When did this become remuneration?
The misconception continues far beyond the Santa myth of childhood. We bribe our teenagers with better Christmas gifts if they get good grades, abide by curfew or don’t gripe about their chores.
Now, I’m not suggesting we do away with all the festive manipulation, but perhaps we need to change our vocabulary. If a gift is necessarily free and unearned, then we must term our holiday exchanges as just that—exchanges—good gifts for good behavior.
Moving on from all that, and assuming we’ve glibly acknowledged the truth but will most likely continue wrapping up “gifts” to place under the tree, let’s consider for a moment the equality and fairness of such a thing.
I remember as a kid overhearing my parents and grandparents discuss the ideas they had for my sisters and me. There were always careful calculations to ensure absolute fairness. If my presents cost $50, then by all means they must find enough things for my sister to make sure the same amount is spent on each child. I think once or twice this became such a challenge that they simply purchased gift cards of equal amounts and told us to pick our own presents.
Dictionary.com doesn’t have much to say about the fairness phenomenon, but Jesus did. In Matthew 20, he told a story about a land owner who sent workers into his vineyard. Throughout the day he hired more laborers, but at the end of the day, he paid them all equally, regardless of the number of hours each worked. I love how he concludes the story:
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matt. 20:13-15)
In this case, the owner was paying wages for services. To the workers he first hired, he paid the agreed upon wage—they earned every cent. But, to the last ones hired, he paid them what they earned and included a gift—money they had not earned. The master administered justice to the first group and grace to the second group. Neither received injustice.
When we tell our children that we buy them gifts for Christmas and at the same time tell them they must be good, subconsciously but not so subtly, we are teaching them that gifts must be earned. If then we say the “gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”—does that mean they must earn His favor too?
When we play tit-for-tat at Christmas, what does that do to generosity? What does that teach our children that a gift really is?
This mentality is not something we can simply nod our heads about and resolve to do things a bit differently next year. By blurring the lines between gifts and wages, generosity and fairness, justice and mercy, we make it infinitely harder for our children to understand the sovereign, merciful, holy justice of God. If we aren’t careful, our distorted Christmas theology can lead our kids right into the arms of a works-based salvation and a universalist perspective of redemption.