Taking the Gift out of Christmas

November 30, 2015

I think we have forgotten what a ‘gift’ really is. I think this every year when the Christmas season rolls around and we all find ourselves somehow entered into a series of informal contracts: “I’ll buy you something, if you buy me something.”

Though we often call these contracts ‘gift exchanges,’ these are not gifts. They are negotiated exchanges of goods and services: I agree to get you something on the understanding that you will also get me something. I buy something for you (that I hope you will like) and I know that (or, perhaps, because I know that) you will buy something for me (that I hope I will like). Gift exchanges are a complicated, roundabout — and risky — way to get something that we want. But they are not gifts.

Gifts are freely given, without concern for receiving something in return. Genuine gifts do not create obligations. The French theorist, Jacques Derrida, went so far as to say that a pure gift (if there is such a thing) would have to be given without the giver or the receiver realizing something had been given.1 While there may be some hyperbole in this discussion, his overall point is that as soon as either party realizes a gift has been given, the gift becomes entered into an economy of exchange, where the giver expects something in return (even if it’s just a ‘Thank you’ or some other sign of gratitude) and the receiver feels obligated to give something in return (to use the gift in sight of the giver, for example, to make the giver happy). As long as I know a gift has been given, I can’t help but begin to expect something to be given in exchange — the ‘gift’ always creates an obligation, which in turn means the ‘gift’ is not a gift, but a contract, an economic exchange of goods and services.

This is my worry with what has happened to Christmas. It’s not so much that we’ve let the trappings of the holiday overwhelm our sense of the holy day. It’s not that we are so interested in our Christmas gifts that we neglect to remember the ‘greatest gift of all’. My biggest worry is not that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas — it’s that we’ve lost the true sense of gift-giving needed for Christian living. It’s not so much that we’ve ruined Christmas, as that we’ve let (consumer) Christmas ruin Christianity.

As Christians, we’ve come to see God more and more as a stakeholder in an (admittedly very one-sided) contract: God gives us Jesus, who can save us all if we will but put our faith in him. This huge gift of grace requires nothing in return. Except gratitude. And obedience. Which means faithful church attendance. And daily devotions. And abstaining from drunkenness, debauchery, sexual immorality, impurity, greed, covetousness, theft, murder, hate, homosexuality, abortion, swearing, gossip, slander, unkind words and unkind actions, and instead engaging actively in forgiveness, social justice, compassion, encouragement, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, faith, hope and love.

But we can never do all these things, so we live our lives constantly aware of our own failure. We have been given a great gift, we think, but have not received it with gratitude. As a result, every day we fall further and further behind, creating a deeper and deeper debt. God, being a gracious Father, has agreed to overlook our ingratitude and extend us forgiveness. We are forgiven, even though we do not deserve it. This, too, is a gift we are given, a gift we are to be thankful for. And live lives of obedience in response to. Which means the gift obligates us to church attendance, daily devotions, abstaining from… And the cycle of sin and shame continues.

We have turned God’s freely-given gifts into objects of exchange. We think God is keeping score, asking something of us in return. We are embarrassed that the gratitude we give in exchange for the gift pales in comparison to the value of the gift. We have given something back that is so worthless in comparison to the gift that we might as well have given nothing at all. And we feel bad. God’s gifts end up making us feel ashamed of our very humanity, sinful creatures that we are.

But what if we were to abandon the ‘gift-exchange’ model of gifts that we have learned from the Christmas season? What if we stop trying to give anything back to God in response to what God has given us? Not even obedience. Or gratitude. Or recognition. What if we respond to God’s gifts simply by continuing to live as if nothing has been given at all, as if we are just what we were always made to be?

If we look to the Bible, the overwhelming thing we are supposed to do with the gifts God has given us is not to be grateful or obedient — it is simply to use them (Romans 12:6). And we use them, not as a sign of gratefulness or to somehow please God, but for the common good of creation (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Cor 12:7).

Using these gifts for the good of the world is not an obligation visited upon us by some unique and special ‘gift’ God has given us. It is part of God’s good plan and design for the whole of creation. The more we think it is some ‘extra’ obligation visited upon us by some special ‘gift’ we have been given, the more we are able to think that doing things for the good of creation is a task we have been given as Christians, rather than the very identity of what we are as human beings. And so we start to think that only Christians can do good things (since only they have received the special ‘gift’ from God). Then, since non-Christians obviously do a lot of seemingly “good” things in the world, the real good that we are called to do, as Christians, must be the things unique to Christians: going to church, praying, reading the Bible, and avoiding certain hot-button things like homosexuality, abortion, and sex outside of marriage. Christianity slowly comes to be about what we do as Christians, rather than what God has done for us. And we thereby lose the power of the gospel, the power of grace.

Perhaps thinking of spiritual gifts as something special we are given that requires a response from us conspires to give us a skewed vision of Christian living. It can cause us to spend too much time trying to do something, rather than merely living out of what God has created, redeemed, and transformed us to be.

Is it time to stop trying to ‘pay God back for all he’s done’? To stop feeling obligated to gratitude or obedience, and instead trust in the creative will of God and the transforming power of Christ’s redemption, to let the Holy Spirit flow through us into the world?

Perhaps when the secular world increasingly removes Christ from Christmas and insists on saying “Happy Holidays” instead, we should see this as a blessing. Given what the holiday season has become — the urgent exchange of goods and services covered by a thin veneer of schmaltzy feel-good-ism — perhaps we ought to desire that it be separated from Christ. If we let Christ be associated with that understanding of gifts, our Christianity will soon devolve into the same kind of exchange of goods and services (grace and obedience?) beneath a veneer of feel-good-ism. Perhaps it already has.

About the Author
  • Neal DeRoo is founding editor of in All things and Associate Professor of Philosophy at The King’s University in Edmonton.

  1. See, for example, his discussions of the gift in Given Time and The Gift of Death

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  1. I appreciate some of the sentiment that you have here, but I come at the situation a bit differently. Specifically, I would respectfully take issue with two components of your argument here:

    Firstly, God does seem to expect thankfulness from us (among other passages I could point to, in Romans 1, Paul condemns the wicked not because they don’t know God, but because they fail to glorify and thank Him). Even the verses you cite suggest responsibility. 1 Peter 4:10 mentions using gifts, true, but as “stewards of grace,” that is, as people entrusted with something for a purpose. 1 Corinthians continues from the gifts passage you cite to chapter 13, where Paul says that all of these gifts are meaningless without love. Finally, it’s hard to read James and come away without feeling obligated to gratitude or obedience, not as a way to earn salvation, but as a reflection of it.

    You talk about a cycle of sin and shame, but that puts emphasis on the negative attributes of our awareness of sin, while the Heidelberg Catechism, among other sources, puts the emphasis in this on thankfulness. In other words, if we lose awareness of our sins, we lose sight of our need for salvation and, eventually, lose sight of the magnitude of what we’ve been given, which diminishes our thankfulness, and, ultimately, our joy. The point of being aware of our sins is not to beat us down, but to lift us up. The same David who laments his sin with Bathsheba (among other sins), calls on God to vindicate him because he has “led a blameless life” in Psalm 26. The only way that makes any sense is if David equates his status with his trust in the Lord and the radical forgiveness he received that blotted out any transgression. Sure, our works are paltry in comparison to what God gives us, but God is adopting us as children, and, if we look at our children (particularly the young ones), many of their works pale in comparison to what we give them, but what we want from them is love, and that has a funny way of covering over a multitude of transgressions.

    Essentially, my first issue with your argument would be to go the other way and say, if we want to define gifts as you’ve put forward, then perhaps we should stop considering God’s gifts to be “gifts.”

    Of course, that seems at odds with the language of Scripture and dangerous on several fronts, so the second, deeper issue I would raise is with your definition of gifts in the first place. Since you borrow a little from the legal world in describing contracts, I’ll do the same in describing gifts. In tax law, gifts are something given out of a “detached, disinterested generosity.” Detached means that you’re handing over the gift without reservation, and disinterested means that you’re not giving the gift as an exchange for something of value. The thing that makes gifts and contracts different is the motivation for the act, which I think you get, but the definitions are detached from the relationship between the two parties. In other words, just because something is a gift doesn’t mean you don’t have expectations for how it might be used or that the response to the gift might not affect the relationship. For instance, I might give my daughter a doll as a gift. If she rips the head off the doll and chews up the arms, then draws all over the torso and comes back to me demanding another doll without ever saying thanks, I’m not likely to give her another doll, not because I entered some contract of exchange with her over the doll, but because she didn’t seem to value the gift and it inspired her to behave in ways that I don’t approve of. None of those expectations make what I gave her any less of a gift, but they also don’t cease to be expectations that affect the continued dynamics of our relationship, and, after all, what God does is not just give us gifts, but offer to enter a covenant relationship with us.

    The last thing I would say would be that, while I appreciate the critique of legalism and the interest in rejecting consumerism, I think this sentiment, not just expressed by you, but by others as well (I’m not imputing others’ words to you, but still responding to the general sentiment) runs a risk of selling short the concept of gift-giving as means of expressing love. Yes, we don’t want Christmas to become all about “what did you get me?” but we also shouldn’t rob people of the joy they get from giving someone else something that that person truly enjoys. That is, while I think there is value in avoiding the economy of exchange notion in Christmas or in turning gifts into something else, we shouldn’t forget that relationships do have an economy (some back and forth) to them, and this may well include the giving of gifts (assuming you buy in, at least partially, to Chapman’s theory of love languages).

    Sorry for the long response, but I wanted to be more systematic than just stating the different conclusions we reach (you know, show my work a little) so that there might be better ground for engagement.

    1. Donald,

      Thank you for your excellent and immensely thoughtful response. There is obviously a danger in taking too far what I say, but my hope is that, for the current conditions, the questions I raise help us re-consider both Christmas and (especially) Christianity.

      In current conditions, I think I agree with the conclusion of your first point. In an earlier version of this article, I actually suggested a temporary moratorium on the word ‘gift’ in relation to what we’ve been given by God. While it would certainly be dangerous (as you point out) to forget entirely that all we have is a gift from God, I fear that, given what ‘gift’ currently means in our culture (especially at this time of year), continuing to call them ‘gifts’ actually may cause us to miss what is truly essential about what God has done for us.

      And this starts to get at your second point as well. I think I want to make a distinction between obligations and expectations (your comments were very helpful in clarifying this for myself, and I thank you for that). “Obligations” are things I am required to do, or I risk losing something. Obligations are more contractual, more legal—if I get X, I am required to do Y. Expectations, on the other hand, do not have the same conditional status: if I fail to do Y, I do not lose X.

      In most relationships, we can distinguish between expectations and obligations. To use your example of children, while we might expect our children to love us, we do not obligate them to do so—if they cease to love us (when they are teenagers, for example), we do not withdraw or revoke our love for them. We are disappointed, possibly even hurt—but we continue to love and provide for them. This is different than, say, an allowance a child receives as a result of doing chores. There, the chores are an obligation, and failure to do them will lead to failure to receive the allowance.

      So, my claim is that God’s gifts might raise certain expectations of us, but they do not obligate us to anything (whereas I think Christmas gift-giving is, by and large, caught up in a series of obligations rather than merely expectations). The gifts are not revoked when we fail to do what is expected. More than that, because our expectations are not obligations imposed on us, God is free to help us live up to the expectations he has of us (this is consistent with the new covenant described in Jeremiah 31, I think). God transforms us to become the kinds of people who can live lives of love (in 1 Corinthians) or of faithful action (in James). Hence, I view the expectations laid out in the Bible as more like promises than like obligations: “This is the kind of person you will be when I [God] have finished renewing you.”

      So, my problem is not with gifts per se, or even with the idea that gifts could alter the nature of a relationship (by raising certain expectations, for example). Rather, my worry is that we’ve let Christmas ‘gift-giving’ become more obligatory than expected, and we have let our view of Christianity come to reflect that same dynamic, as if God obliges us to act in certain ways, rather than expecting it of us (and then equipping us to live up to those expectations through the transformative power of the Spirit). That is, I worry we’ve let our Christianity come to be defined by what we do (or think or believe), rather than by what God does.

      Spiritual “gifts”, then, are not some extra ‘object’ we have been given, which in turn leads to a new set of obligations. Rather, they are part of our very creational identity, and lead to a host of expectations that, thankfully, God does not oblige us to live up to, but equips us to achieve.

  2. “And so we start to think that only Christians can do good things …”

    In our shared confession we have a definition of good works, that is, “Only those which are done out of true faith, in accordance with the law of God, and to His glory, and not those based on our own opinion or on precepts of men.” H.C. Q&A 91 By that definition only Christians can do good things (I still acknowledge “civil good”). Are you perhaps referring to a different kind of “good” in that paragraph?

    In relation to your opening comments of that paragraph, yes, all humans everywhere ought to respond obediently to the cultural mandate, but only Christians truly understand its source, scope, and significance.

    1. I think you are conflating ‘good things’ with the technical sense of ‘good works’ at stake in the HC. By ‘good things’ I mean only that all people can do things that work for the betterment of creation, whether they realize God is the reason for their action or not. This would be in line with the ‘civil goods’ and ‘all humans responding obediently to the cultural mandate’ that you mentioned in your comment. And while I agree that only Christians truly understand the source of the cultural mandate, it isn’t clear to me that all Christians understand its scope (and the ‘significance’ question is ambiguous for me, depending on precisely which type of significance you are talking about). In fact, much of contemporary Christianity now seems to be content with merely acknowledging the source, and pays little to no regard to the cosmic scope of the gospel–the gospel comes to be something that only pertains to ‘the Chosen’, and has little to no implications for the entire cosmos which God so loved that He gave his only begotten Son for it.

  3. In response to Prof. Roth’s comments- I think one argument that could be made in light of this post is that Derrida’s notion of “pure gift” is not an actuality, but something we can strive toward. Derrida (and Prof. DeRoo, correct me if I am wrong) uses many of his well known terms like “messianic” and “justice” to imply that which is always arriving, but can never be fully realized. From my reading of Derrida’s “Given Time,” and it is a limited reading, the PURE gift has nothing to do with an economy of giving and taking, but it is almost a paradox in this way. A meaningful gift (not pure gift) usually contains an expectation, but not an obligation. Expectation and obligation however, are on a sliding scale in which the pure gift is so far over, it is unattainable. I think it is impossible to deny that there is some kind of economy involved if there is an expectation of any sort, and that is why the language of “God’s economy” is appropriate for many Christians.

    That being said, my question is whether we can have a positive attitude toward this seasonal economy without making the material economy a primary focus. If we were to give gifts and expect nothing in return, would this not deter someone from giving back, or even giving to another? There is something positive in that expectation and if it is a healthy expectation, I think an economy focused on the gift of God rather than material economy will prevail. You are right- we must not allow Christmas to revolve around obligatory gift giving.

    Another question: Is there ever a time when a gift requires obligation? Many Christians believe so. Is not faith a requirement, or rather, an obligation toward God? If a faith without works is a dead faith, it is not difficult to make the argument that good works are obligatory. Of course, faith does not imply that we repay God what we owe, but rather that we live in thankfulness to the gift we have received. The question is whether there is an economy involved here, and whether this posture of gratitude is merely expected or obligated. If eternal life is lost because an obligation/expectation is not fulfilled, the limit of the gift implies the weight of an economy. Would you say that the gospel is “pure gift” because it saves those who do not even know about it, or is it limited in the paradigm of an economy, because there is an expected or obligated response?

    1. You are right, Mason, that (according to Derrida) for us, gifts always function within an economy. But I think we need to consider whether the only type of economy is one of exchange, or a zero-sum economy where for me to get something, someone else must give something. I think pursuing the notion of an economy of grace could help for the non-materialist economy you are after.

      As for your last question, this is a difficult one for me to answer. On the one hand, any good Calvinist will tell you that there is absolutely nothing we can do to get (or lose) eternal life. In that sense, the gospel is a pure gift, insofar as we can only come to respond properly to it once God has put it in our hearts: the condition of receiving the gift is itself part of the gift (I believe I’m wading into Kierkegaard’s territory here, though he was certainly no Calvinist!). On the other hand, the Bible does seem to ask something of us in terms of how we live.

      For me, then, the question is the nature of what is asked of us. This includes not only whether they are obligations, expectations, or something else, but also the ‘register’ or ‘level’ on which the ask is made. That is, are these obligations/expectations religious (in the sense of pertaining to my relationship with God), or are they ethical, moral, linguistic, etc. (i.e., pertaining to our relationship with creation)? If the latter, and if you believe that our relationship to creation is not something we control by pure force of will, but rather something that is shaped by our religious relationship (i.e., by what is in our heart), then these obligations/expectations are not something we are called to do (for example, by trying a little harder), but something that God will do in and through us, once the Spirit reigns supreme in our heart.

      This still involves us in an economy (the economic being one of the ways we relate to all creatures), but I’m not sure if economic language is the best way for us to talk about our relationship with God. Or rather, to do so we’d have to realize that our relationship with God is nothing other than the life we live everyday and all the time. The ‘gift’ is not some extra something we’re given, requiring a certain special response–the ‘gift’ is our very life and selves, and the best response to it is simply to use the gifts to life to the fullest (i.e., to live lives of shalom).

      I’m not entirely sure that answers your question adequately. Hopefully it helps.