This is a companion post to last week’s “Before you give,” and makes several assumptions. For instance, that you’re celebrating and will exchange gifts. It also assumes that you have space this holiday to think about this unessential part of living.
Because of time, energy, money, or emotion, you may not have been able to prepare for next week like you wanted. There is still one way you can, though. Prepare how you will accept gifts.
Years ago, I gave a sweater to a girl at a going away party. I didn’t know her well. She squealed and exclaimed. It was outrageous how pleased she was, and how much she liked it. I’d never experienced a reaction like that, and I will never forget how much joy it brought me, even though she did it for every single gift. I’ve seen enough crestfallen and insulted faces at gift openings. Not always from my gifts, just from people who don’t like to receive, or don’t know how.
I did practice opening gifts with my first son when he was almost two. I taught him to jump up and clap every time he opened a box, and then hug the one who gave it to him. The idea came after my experience giving the sweater, and that Christmas was really fun. (He still only wanted to play with the boxes, though.)
Once, I was asked, “Did you buy me this because I asked for it?” I think his exact words in November had been, “If you buy my anything this year, buy me this…” but it didn’t matter, since he clearly no longer wanted it. We always used written lists with my family growing up, and then again when I became a parent. But some never enjoyed the lack of surprise and thoughtfulness which comes from that version of the gift giving tradition.
Mostly, I think it’s just difficult to hide all the mixed emotions during the letdown of excess.
But the giver would like a payoff, and that isn’t selfish—although, it can be. I realize, now, it was a demand for performance when we would zoom in on our kids’ faces with a camera—hoping to freeze in time their rapture at a life-changing gift. We have loads of pictures where we can’t tell what was opened, because faces are down, trying to decide how they feel about it all. We did it that way because we wanted to capture a moment of their joy to keep.
I can’t think of a Christmas when I didn’t get up hours before dawn to see what Santa brought. I don’t know why I did this. It might have been to keep my initial reaction as my own. Probably, it was because I harbor a disobedient spirit. My parents warned me that if I ever found my gifts before Christmas they would take them all back. Peeking was my way of obeying the letter of the law until Christmas Day but maintaining rebellion in my heart. It’s hard to be vulnerable enough to receive with thankfulness.
Assuming you didn’t grow up as a refugee in a war-torn country, Christmas was probably purer when you were an oblivious kid and thought Santa had unlimited resources. But not for everyone. A woman once shared with me that her earliest feeling about Christmas was that the rich kids she knew must be better behaved than she was. She decided this because Santa brought them nicer presents.
Every tradition can be beautiful in one house and heart, but awkward in another.
Santa, a man who knows everything, has unlimited resources and sometimes gives you exactly what you want. It can be a romantic imitation of God, or end in tears of betrayal when the lie is revealed. I’m not cynical-—that’s how my little sister reacted. Have you ever wondered what would it be like to return to bliss and believe in a benefactor who had unlimited resources?
But here’s the catch, it can be hard to receive from God, too. This has to do with humility, assumptions and expectations. I think sometimes we we relate the quirky interactions here on earth with how God must be. But God is not man.
Expectations & Assumptions
Have you ever thought, “If something good happens, then something bad must happen”? Or have you heard people say, “If I become a Christian I’ll have to be a missionary in Africa.” Today’s version is more like, “I’ll have to give up my identity to follow God.” It may look that way from the outside, but it’s more like clinging to God tighter than anything else. And then when you have held on to something real, you loosen your grip on all the “else.” Having a cost is not the same as a transaction.
The point is, it’s possible to be too full of expectation to receive a gift.
God does not give like the world. It is not a transaction, requiring payment. He doesn’t dose equal amounts of bad in our lives to balance the good. He doesn’t even require us to accept, he just waits at the door. God gives without obligation. The things you relinquish, like your fears and lusts, are on your own timing. That’s why some people can be believers for decades and still need milk instead of flourishing. If we understand this freedom, we can become better at receiving all the the things God has for us. And, receive from others.
This post has made assumptions of privilege, but assumptions don’t have a place in gift receiving.
Don’t assume the giver is obligated.
Don’t assume that the giver doesn’t know you, see you, or want to bless you.
Don’t assume you will owe them something.
Out of obligation
Some shoppers have the goal to purchase all gifts before December first. I once heard that my grandma started buying in January. This made more sense a century ago when we lived heirloom lives, instead of the disposable lives we live now. I don’t know many people who long for things, because most of us get what we want within a pretty short time frame. (Or at least a plastic version of it. Again, this shows the privileged culture.) Even if the giver bought you something ages ago that you never wanted, and gave just because it is tradition to give gifts—you can still receive it with thanksgiving. Even if they felt obligated, they aren’t. They didn’t have to give you anything. You are are only responsible for your reaction and no one else’s actions or motivations.
To be known
We want gifts that show we are known and seen. In my post last week, I mentioned that I’ve given books I loved. I have often given things that I wanted myself. When God gives you something, it is about you. When humans give you something, it isn’t always. Sometimes it’s about them. And why isn’t that OK? Not knowing the hidden places of your heart and your secret desires (or spoken desires) does not mean they do not want to know you. Sometimes a gift is just an “I was thinking about you,” trinket. If you want to be searched and known—don’t look on earth.
Transactional: no expectations or obligation
Sometimes we are not good at receiving because we assume the gift comes with a price. Often they do—at least the expectation that you will enjoy it it or the requirement of a thank you card. Yeah, sometimes there are expectations. But recompense is up to you. Even if the consequence is their despair, loss of relationship, or no more gifts. Again, you can’t control their motives. And wanting to control them is the same kind of weird transaction they are attempting. Be free! You are only responsible for yourself.
Be humble in words—if not feelings
Not everything should be about you, even your gift. Maybe the giver just loves to shop and doesn’t have a place to put it all. But even if they are a compulsive buyer and just get a thrill from purchasing, they gave it to you for a reason. Set aside your expectations, set aside the assumptions. Just receive with humility. Even more humility if you don’t need it, want it, understand why they gave it to you, or it’s a near miss from what you really wanted. And if you care to offer a gift back to them, more than just saying “thanks,”—visibly enjoy the process.