Why do we give gifts at Christmastime? After all, for years, our children told us it was the best part of Christmas! I’m sure most children feel that way—the anticipation, the excitement, the WAITING! What would it be like to observe Christmas Day, and NOT exchange gifts? And yet, that is exactly what the early church did.
Originally, gifts were exchanged on different days, based on cultural traditions. For example, in the past, some countries have given gifts to each other in honor of Nicholas of Pantara, the pastor who became known as St. Nicholas, or Sinter Klaas. These gifts were usually gifts or acts done in secret to help those in need. Other countries waited until January 6th to give gifts to those they love. These gifts were given in honor of the treasures given to Jesus by the wise men, or Magi, who came from the East (China, India, or other lands, undisclosed in the Scriptures). In the Catholic church, January 6th was set as the day to remember the wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem to find the Christ Child; otherwise known as “The Epiphany,” meaning “The Manifestation, or Appearance.” Historically, the feast celebrated on this day observed three events:
1) The appearance of Jesus as Who He is – God come in human form, recognized by the Magi.
2) The disclosure of Jesus as Who He is – God who works miracles and brings all things together for good for those who believe, recognized by the servants of the house and his disciples at Cana, when He changed water to wine (His first miracle- John 2 ; Romans 8:28)
3) Heaven’s endorsement of Jesus as Who He is – The manifestation of God on earth, recognized at his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
In the first five centuries, the early church celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus in conjunction with Jewish Passover. Next to that celebration, the most important became the Feast of the Wise Men. Both holy days were remembered with prayer and fasting prior, and feasting and rejoicing on the day. On the Day of the Feast of the Wise Men, many people were baptized, or even re-baptized, to renew their commitment to Christ during an age when the Church was just learning her identity. Also, during this feast day, the doorways of believers’ homes were sprinkled with water, as a symbol of the inner cleansing that occurs when a person gives all they have, and are becoming, to Jesus Christ in surrender. Over time, it became a practice to write over the doorposts of those homes, “C+B+M,” which meant “Christ blesses this house (Christus bendicat mansionem).” Since the three gifts of the wise men were also remembered on that same day, someone decided to remember the Latin blessing with three initials – CBM. Over time, these initials were given names – Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. The names stuck, and so did the concept that there were three kings who came to the house in Bethlehem. In actuality, there was a company of more than 50, who traveled in caravan for two years or more to arrive in Israel, led by the “star.”
After the Reformation, as the Protestant Church moved away from the more formal liturgies of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the concept of gift giving remained. The quandary became, “when do we give gifts if we don’t celebrate the Feast of the Wise Men?” For a time, the twelve days between December 25th and January 6th were known as “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Gifts were given on each day, similar to the practice of Jewish Festival of Lights, or Chanukah, also celebrated at this time of year. During the years when this was a widespread practice, it was a small reach to teach those in learning that the Incarnation, (the indwelling of Christ in human form), marks the beginning place of growth and discipleship for believers. Subsequently, then, came the second lesson: Our life on earth is a journey, through which we follow the Light we receive, and in the end, we offer all of our treasures to the One Who came to rescue us.
During the Middle Ages, the feast of Christmastide, became more universal, incorporating the practice of gift giving to honor and remember the Gift of Life in Jesus, even by those who did not yet know Him. By the mid-1800’s, the general practice of giving gifts to loved ones on Christmas Day, as well as the custom of secretly giving to help those in need, had melded into the celebrations on one day rather than twelve – Christmas Day. In America, many writers of fictional works have added to the Christmas culture, shaping our celebrations and adding other aspects to the holiday.
For me, the key to giving gifts at Christmas, is not about what day I give them; nor is it about keeping up with traditions. For me, gift giving at Christmastime, and any other time of year, keeps my heart open and filled with gratitude. When the Season becomes a dry practice, or feels like a chore, I have to remind myself to step back and consider: Why am I doing this?
And then it comes: An Epiphany – Because Jesus gave, and I want to be like Him.
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