In one Christmas carol, the shepherd boy says to the king, “Do you know what I know? A child, a child, shivers in the cold.”
“Let us bring him silver and gold,” says the king. Silver and gold, frankincense and myrrh for a baby born in a sheep’s stall?! What were the Wise Men thinking? They should have brought blankets, tea, and hot-cross buns.
Thus began our long tradition of giving gifts for Christmas, which, all too often, reflect this origin with their inappropriateness. How many times have we given incense and baubles to friends who needed blankets and buns? But trying to figure out whether that friend would rather have gifts for a king even if he is shivering in the cold is half the fun of the whole tradition. The other half is receiving gifts that by being so perfect tell us how well the giver knows us – a kitchen knife from my sister, some merino wool for a new knitting project from my son, a book of word puzzles from Mike.
To help with appropriateness, some members of my family like to give out Christmas wish lists, which insure that the giver will have the satisfaction of pleasing the recipient and that the recipient will be relieved of the burden of unwanted gifts. Nonetheless, I’m not always fond of this method. It diminishes the element of surprise and deprives the giver of half the fun. Besides, if I put needle-nose pliers on my list, what’s to keep me from getting needle-nose pliers from every person who sees the list?
A few years ago I was invited to a Christmas party with close friends who all agreed not to buy gifts but to find things in our own homes to give each other. At first this sounded like a garage sale exchange plan, but I found I don’t want to give my friends what I don’t want, either. There is no spirit in such a gift. I won’t give away the bowl my father made or my great-grandmother’s tea set, either, because the feeling-bond associated with those items is strong for me and negligible for anyone else. But a pretty necklace an ex-boy friend gave me is just right for Myria (I don’t want to be reminded of the ex-boy friend, anyway), my library can be thinned of books if I really try, and I’ll let go of my stash of yarns to give to Louann, who is a weaver.
Maybe Mary accepted the gifts of the Wise Men thinking, “What on earth am I going to do with frankincense?” and if she didn’t quite manage, “Just what I always wanted!” she surely smiled and said thank you, responding not so much to the gift as to the feeling-bond the gift represented. And it is that feeling-bond, in the end, that is at the heart of the gift-giving tradition, for it is that that we mean when we give our gifts.