Sense and Nonsense: On the Nature of Christmas Gifts

The Dawn Mass on Christmas contains a reading from the Epistle to Titus: “But when the kindness and generosity of God Our Savior dawned upon the world, then, not for any good deeds of our own, but because He was merciful, He saved us.”

What is it that comes from generosity and kindness, that is not a return of justice for justice, what else but what we call a gift? At the heart of the world lies not “good deeds of our own” so that someone “owes” us something, but something more sublime, more mystical, an undeserved salvation, a gift we did not expect, yet a gift we received in what must be called mercy.

In the same Dawn Mass of Christmas, the reading from Isaiah proclaims: “Behold your deliverance has come.” And in the Gospel from Luke, in response to what had been seen, we further read: “All who heard were astonished at what the shepherds had said. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them.” If our deliverance has come, we did not formulate it. If Mary pondered these things, it was because she did not know of them ahead of time. We do not have a “right” either to be astonished or a “duty” to treasure, but if we are neither astonished nor inclined to treasure “all these things,” we are earth-bound and confined to our own paltry world.

In William Griffin’s account of the life of C.S. Lewis there is an entry for 1962, citing a letter which Lewis had written to Edward Allen in Westfield, Massachusetts:

I discovered only the other day that Christmas presents had begun in the time of St. Augustine, and he called them “diabolical” because they originated not in Christmas but in the pagan saturnalia. “Diabolical” is a bit strong; perhaps “a damn nuisance” would be more accurate.

Some of us, I suppose, are hard put to associate Christmas gifts with the diabolical category, though I have heard shopping for presents to be the “damn nuisance” that Lewis suspected it was.

Even Lewis was hard-pressed in practice, however, to agree with St. Augustine about the exact unflattering origin of Christmas presents. In 1952, for example, we find the following account:

“Thank heavens!” said Warren [Lewis] to his brother as he waded through the mail on the morning of December 23rd; “here’s something like a real present at last.” There were dozens of Christmas cards and some parcels, one of them a monster from [Vera Matthews] Gebbert in California. Warren immediately sat down and typed a letter of thanks, adding that although they had removed the outer wrappings, they would not, “like good little boys,” open the parcel itself until the morning of the twenty-fifth.”

The Lewis brothers liked “real” presents, “monster” ones in fact. Moreover, they understood, even as grown men, that presents—diabolical or damn nuisances—are not to be opened until “the morning of the twenty-fifth” of December, Christmas morning.

In his wonderful little book, Theology and the Future, the great Anglican theologian Eric Mascall wrote:

Finite being is, by the very fact of its finitude and insufficiency, open towards the Creator on whom, for its very existence, it depends. And in manhood, which is not merely finite but is also personal, there will be unique possibilities in this openness to a Creator who is himself personal. One of such possibilities is the elevation of finite human beings into the life of God himself, which is described as the action of grace; another—though we might never have dreamt of it ourselves is the assumption of a human life by God himself in the Incarnation, and this is even more wonderful.

We depend for our existence on the Creator to whom we are open. That is, we are ourselves brought forth from and stand in the nothingness that envelops our own finiteness. We ourselves are already astonishing by the very fact that we exist at all.

And yet, because we are a gift unto ourselves, so to speak, because it is not due to our own deeds that we are saved, as Paul told Titus, we can be given yet more wonderful gifts. This is what Christmas is about. The gifts of Christmas, at their deepest meaning, are first of all themselves, what is given, and what they symbolize, that all things are gifts, especially the highest things. This is why Christmas is both a feast of humility and a feast of joy. We cannot give ourselves the highest things, nor can we help but be full of joy when we find them given to us.

“Behold your deliverance has come,” not because you called for it, not because you knew what it was you were being delivered from, but only because more was given than you dreamt of. Even if we can think of something wonderful, we are not prepared for something “even more wonderful.” This is what Christmas is about, the something more wonderful given to us in the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Word Made Flesh, dwelling amongst us, “not for any good deeds of our own, but because He was merciful.”

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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