If I am ever caught chiseling star shapes out of potatoes during the Christmas season again, my husband has strict instructions to hurl me into a snowbank headfirst. Or maybe I’ll just hurl myself.
It’s my own grown-up Christmas meltdown memory. A few years ago, frantically preparing food, cleaning, and wrapping presents in advance of family converging upon the house, I burst into tears when I realized I could not finish making potato prints to stamp brown paper gift wrap with before my company arrived. I was a Yuletide Bride of Frankenstein—deranged, numb, and frizzy-haired. (She’s aliiiiive!!!)
It doesn’t help that I have THREE DECEMBER BABIES. (People with intact uteri: Do not under any circumstances have sex in late March.)
Several years into motherhood, I had watched my cherubs morph into loot-snatching robots, eyes glazed over with the “gimmes,” barely glancing at freshly-opened presents before swiveling around to look for more gifts under the tree. Gift-glutted, they were.
My husband and I realized we had to act, or the beauty, peace, and meaning of the season would be lost for them, under a heap of plastic playthings and frenzied accumulation.
You don’t need December babies to get this. Every parent has been appalled at one time or another with the Christmas pileup of plastic, batteries and toy parts (especially broken parts — a given), some of them tossed aside almost immediately and perhaps never touched again.
So what’s the solution? No gifts?
Not on this mama’s watch.
Gifts are my “love language,” and they can express love and care and deepen relationships with those we adore. In giving gifts at Christmas, we are fashioning ourselves after Him who sent us his great Gift.
But something had to give.
For us, the antidote came from a friend, Ann: “Why not follow the ‘Principle of the Three Wise Men?’” she asked. “Something you want, something you need, and a surprise.”
It was surprisingly simple and reasonable. “Why should we get more gifts than Jesus?” I asked my seven-year-old the next Christmas. He gravely nodded. It appealed to his child’s logic, and just made a lot of sense. Why indeed?
How does this three-point “principle” fit the actual gifts of the magi, that shiny troika swirling in stardust and mystery?
Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar introduced the idea of giving gifts at Christmas. They modeled restraint, meaning, and love in their presentation to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Gold actually fits most pragmatically under the ‘something you need’ category. For Mary and Joseph, gold was the equivalent of a thick wad of cash, their ticket out of Herod’s murderous path and as refugees, to safe haven in Egypt.
Frankincense and Myrrh both have healing, medicinal properties, and both are used in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions to anoint babies, initiates and members in baptism and other new chapters of their spiritual lives.
(Interestingly, liquid Myrrh is sometimes added to egg tempera paint in the creation of icons, which made me think of my creative middle child, always asking for art supplies to craft, form, and innovate.)
Gold, frankincense and myrrh were widely available in the days when Jesus was born, and all three gifts were generous yet practical, costly but with deep value. Even though I don’t have a treasure chest from which to offer Christmas gifts, I can still learn from the magi to give with open hands and open heart.
Over the last decade, the wise men’s paradigm of gift giving has been a boon and a grace to our family celebration. Keeping it to just three gifts means we don’t go overboard, and there’s a certain peace and security in that. The “something you need” category has been filled with snow pants, hockey sticks, hunting bibs, sweaters, bookshelves, tools, and other such prudent, though surprisingly well-liked, presents.
“Something you want” means, obviously, we all get something we really fancy.
The last category is my favorite. Who doesn’t love surprises? This is where we as parents find some hidden gem, off our kids’ radars.
Like the three stargazers from the East, we can all give gifts differently this year. Let’s learn from the ancient teachers of orient.
May we intentionally defy the gluttony of too many presents, expectations, and pressure.
May we imbue our gift giving with balance, thoughtfulness and worth, offering presents (but not too many) that will mean something special on Christmas morning and beyond.
May we fall down in awe like those wise, wise men did, before Immanuel, and allow his being with us to infuse our season with wonder and joy.