Americans spend about $450 billion on Christmas each year. Astounding really. Way back when, about 15 years ago, when we were expecting our first, we didn’t know anything about any $450 billion. But, we knew we didn’t want to get wrapped up in wrapped-up things and that we wanted to do gifts a bit differently.
We wanted gifts to really mean something. And, we wanted gift-giving to be an opportunity for shepherding our children, not just an opportunity to give them good things they really want. And, so, we give them three gifts.
That’s it. Three gifts.
From us. Not from Santa. From Mom and Dad. And, these three gifts symbolize those of the wise men. Each year, before we open gifts, we read the Christmas story, emphasizing the wise men who sought out Jesus, the incarnate God, sharing the significance of each individual gift before they open their three gifts.
1. The wise men brought Jesus myrrh.
Myrrh was a valuable gift of practical use — it was used medicinally for all sorts of ailments from coughs to open wounds. It was a good gift to bring a mother of a new baby. It was something she could use to care for her baby well. And, it demonstrated the gift giver’s concern and hope that the baby would be healthy and have every one of his needs met. It was also used for something else though; it was used for embalming and anointing the dead. And, so, it was a prophetic gift, meaning that it showed people something that was to come in the future, already setting up the Gospel story from the beginning. God’s son would have to die.
Our children’s first gift is a practical gift, something they can use, that meets a need they have—a piece of clothing, some sheets for their bed, a bike helmet, something like that. Sometimes they get excited about this one; sometimes they aren’t as excited. But, we make sure they know that we are giving it to show them our love for them and our hope that they will be cared for well and that all their needs will be met.
2. The wise men brought Jesus frankincense.
Frankincense is the purest form of incense and was used in worship. When burned, its white smoke and sweet smell would symbolize prayers going up to heaven. It creates a meaningful experience for the one who uses it as well as everyone else around. Like the first gift, it’s also symbolic and prophetic. Jesus is little like Frankincense. He is fully God, Emmanuel, God with us, and the only way to heaven. Because of Him, we can have a relationship with God and talk to him in prayer directly.
Our children’s second gift, likewise, is an experiential gift, something not tangible but something meaningful to us as a family — tickets to some sort of show or a special movie (ahem…Star Wars perhaps), a night out at the ball park, something like that. One year, we gave our horse-loving toddler a “pony ride” which simply involved a trip to Aunt Charlotte’s house where she got to ride her horse in a circle. She loved it. This gift may or may not cost a whole lot, but the value of it is precious.
Typically, I make up some sort of graphic on the computer that is like a gift certificate for whatever their specific experience gift is and give it to them in an envelope along with a business card, ticket, or brochure for the event if there is something like that. These are the gifts our children remember year to year and often cost us the least.
3. The wise men brought Jesus gold.
Gold was as valuable then as it is now. It was a precious and sacrificial gift on the part of the wise men who gave it. Some say this gold paid for the holy family’s trip to Egypt that they took right away to protect Jesus’ life. Just like the other gifts, it was also a very symbolic gift in that gold was a gift given to princes when they were born. And, that is what Jesus is — royalty, a King in the line of David, King of the world, King of the whole universe, and King of our hearts.
When we become a follower of Jesus, we are adopted into God’s family and we too become princes and princesses, heirs to the throne. We don’t deserve it; no matter how good we are, we won’t ever be good enough to deserve it. But, because of Jesus, God sees us like He sees His own Son. He sees us as His children. And, we become more and more like Him.
Our children’s third and last gift is a gold gift, something they really really want. Sometimes these gifts are a little more costly—like a lego set or a sweet new scooter. And, sometimes, they really aren’t costly at all, but just something we know they really want, something that is like gold to them (two years ago, the boys’ gold gifts came from Craigslist and cost a grand total of $25 put together — secondhand pet box turtles). It’s the gift that we just want to give to them because we love them and want to bless them. And, we tell them so before we give them.
Of course, they have grandparents and aunts and uncles, all of whom dote on our children. And, we encourage them to choose small gifts for each other that they pay for with their own money (which is a teachable moment in and of itself). So, yes, they do actually get more than three gifts. Deprived they are not. Believe me.
We are doing what we can through our gift giving to set them up to better understand that Christmas is not simply about festive music on the radio, Rudolph, sparkly trees, cookies and milk, and boxes wrapped up with fancy bows. They sure do make Christmas fun; we don’t deny that. But, they aren’t what defines Christmas.
It’s about Jesus.