The Thing Itself

This gift guide is probably a little late in the season, but if you’re like me, you’re still working on your list–possibly not even onto the ‘checking it twice’ stage of things. Also, this isn’t really a gift guide. Though, who knows, you might use it as one.


Every year around Christmas I get fed up with the same issue: we busy ourselves with a lot of materialistic rituals in place of paying attention to The Thing Itself. If you’re Christian, which you should be if you’re celebrating Christmas, winnow down the Christmas story and it’s the essence of humility and forgiveness. Here is a wee lad, born in unfavorable circumstances in every imaginable way (illegitimate pregnancy? check. on the run from a manhunt before you’re out of the womb? check. Mom consigned not even to ‘the bad hospital across town’ but a shed with a passel of cows? check.), and yet this is the light of the world.

In hindsight, we’re really good at getting ready for Christmas, because we’ve had a few thousand years for marketing departments to get their acts together. Beginning sometime around Halloween (not always after), we’re inundated with snowmen and Christmas trees and gingerbread men and a whole host of characters designed to… do what, exactly? We start off with a situation none of us would want to be in ourselves and end up with this crazy weird party thing in which most American kids are probably getting the idea that the twelve apostles were actually reindeer.

The family I live with recently made up a song about “Baby Jesus, Lying in a Manger,” with an uptempo beat that makes a manger seem like a cool place to hang out. Having spent a good amount of time with hay, I can tell you first hand that a manger is not where you want to give birth. I have gotten scars from “lying in a manger,” okay? 

If you’re not Christian, I can see why you’d want to get in on all the “fun,” and I can certainly appreciate having an excuse to throw a party in the bleak midwinter (though technically Christmas falls only a few days after the official start of winter, it usually does feel pretty bleak already). So, throw the party.

And in the meantime, it is nice to recognize friends and family. It is nice to give gifts. As with Valentine’s Day, while I’m not a fan of the holiday at all, I can fully support the notion of taking time out of our normal routines to pay extra attention to the people we are closest with and to really be mindful of our love and gratitude. Seriously that’s brilliant, that’s lovely.

So for heaven’s sake, don’t get tied up in knots about exactly what to get so-and-so. Spend as little money as possible and give as good gifts as you can figure out. When in doubt, buy something consumable that will be appreciated (i.e. chocolate, alcohol, nuts–obviously it’s important to make sure the giftee isn’t lactose intolerant, a recovering alcoholic, or allergic to nuts…) or donate money to a worthwhile cause in someone’s name (at risk of beating a dead goat, I always recommend Heifer Project International as it is both apolitical and self-perpetuating, addressing possibly our most basic and universal need–food).

If you know someone well, it can be nice to demonstrate that understanding by giving something that makes you think of them. This is not to say that consumables or charity cannot fill this requirement, though. My dad usually wants nothing more–at all times, I think–than nuts, chocolate, and beer. Knowing someone’s favorite brand of whisky is often invaluable, in my experience. My mother usually has something practical, like a spatula, on her “wish list,” although often she’d rather choose it herself–for someone like this, it might be nice to offer to go shopping with the person, and then pick up the tab.

I think it can be argued that the point of giving gifts is as much about making ourselves feel like good givers as it is about what we’re giving, or who we’re giving to. But I’d also like to point out that the gift itself still matters. Giving something which ultimately proves to be a burden to the giftee is not much of a gift, is it? Rather than striving to show off your personal purchasing power and shopping fortitude, try not to worry about the exterior aspects of a gift–the cost, the brand, the wrapping–and think about instead what it took to produce the item and how well it will be appreciated by the gift receiver. For many people, a meaningful letter will be just as appreciated–and probably more appreciated in the long run–then an expensive sweater, for example.

The one Christmas hymn which always makes me tear up is In the Bleak Midwinter, on the line: What I can I give him. The newer version of this hymn cuts out the first “I,” so we’re left with “What can I give him,” but there’s a very different sense here, I think. “What can I give him?” is the kind of open-ended question that seems to have no real answer (“nothing”). What I can, I give him suggests that we all have something to give, no matter how humble our circumstances–after all, the baby in the manger is supposedly bringing us eternal salvation, forgiveness, etc., etc., and is just a wee lad in a jumble of cow fodder.

[Note: watching this version–link below–of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” I realize I may be incorrect about the lyrics–this may be a Lutheran/Anglican question, not an old/new version. Not sure. All I know — I grew up singing what I can I give him.]

1 comment
  1. Hard to say
    where we’d be today
    If someone back when
    hadn’t been
    born in a pile of hay.

    Merry Christmas! 😉

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