In our family, that period on Christmas day, between the meal and the end of the holiday, is usually filled by cleaning up after dinner, dismantling Mount Boxmore, testing batteries, discussing returns, and playing games. Truthfully, this is when the afterglow is the sweetest and the most intense. Sure, there have been some moments of tension punctuated by unnecessarily sharp words or painted with frustrated tones, but for the most part, the most stressful hours are behind us. Now, memories of laughter, delight, surprise, thankfulness stir the embers in our hearts. Smiles are in excess, bellies are filled, and a few slumbering snores are heard about the house.
But it's entirely common in many societies and cultures around the world for gift exchanges to continue beyond December 25.
In the UK, Boxing Day is December 26. In the Middle Ages, church alms boxes for the poor were opened on this day, and the contents were distributed among the needy. In the evolution of the holiday, servants have been given the day off to celebrate with their families (since their services would have been needed for the house family's grand gatherings on Christmas Day), and working people, such as milkmen and butchers, went to the homes that they serviced to collect tips or to receive their "Christmas box". Boxing Day is still a public holiday in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
St. Stephen's Day, also celebrated on December 26, provides another opportunity for people to extend the gift-giving season beyond the 25th (I talk about the history and the carol that commemorates an event on this day in a post on my blog about King Wenceslas,). And we are all familiar with the Twelve Days of Christmas, or Twelvetide, a liturgical period of twelve days of observances that begins on December 25 and continues through January 5, culminating on Epiphany, January 6, the day historically recognized by liturgical churches as when Jesus was baptized. On various church calendars the days in between are set aside to mark different events that unfold in the birth narrative, but for the most part, in the Middle Ages (again), they were taken up with merrymaking and gift-giving. Swans a-swimming and lords a-leaping were probably not a part of the celebrations since the poem from which the song was taken wasn't written until the end of the 1700s, but there were gifts of fruit and nuts, trinkets, and treats, and, very likely, a lot of spirits. For some speculation as to the meaning behind the twelve days of gifts in the song -- beyond the Catholic claim to symbolism --read more here.
I think I'm going to start this year advocating for the continuance of gift exchanges within the body of Christ beyond Christmas Day. Not fitbits, comfy throws or framed photos, but gifts like wisdom, service, hospitality, exhortation and mercy (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). I would love to see the members of my spiritual family exchanging kindness, joy, love, peace, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5), and I'd like to see it happen all year long.
The spiritual gifts are often neglected in our understanding of ourselves as converted and transformed people. They are perceived almost as some sort of aura that just emanates from the beholder, as a natural flow from godliness -- a huge misconception, I confess, especially since my godliness is neither, in fact, natural nor, in practice, consistent. I haven't properly viewed the gifts as actual behavior -- actions that become habit -- made possible by the Holy Spirit teaching and molding the heart and mind into godliness. The gifts are distributed to all believers but are enlarged and strengthened by spiritual muscle -- the Holy Spirit's muscle, that is.
If the manner of modern man (okay, I concede, mostly woman) is to start thinking about and preparing for Christmas giving and feasting as early as September and October -- because it's that important to us that it be just right, if the exchange of material gifts and crafting a physical atmosphere of joy and warmth and excitement demands so much forethought, why wouldn't there be the same thoughtful consideration in sharing our spiritual gifts, whether those distributed individually ("to one, to another . . . " 1 Corinthians 12) or to all by one gift (Galatians 5)? For the countless reasons we give presents to others -- for love, to ease burdens, to delight or comfort, or even out of duty -- we are also compelled to give of our spiritual abundance: We love the brethren, we see needs that call for attention and care, we rejoice with some and mourn with others, in obedience we put on the characteristics of Christ even when we don't feel like it because it honors him.
Who says Christmas has to come to a close? Who says that just because the boxes and bags get broken down and packed away for use next year that we can't intentionally and carefully prepare beautiful presents and packages of love and ministry for others? I've been writing all through this month about a heart and mind focus on the Incarnation, the greatest gift ever given that also upended the world and opened the path through the veil to our heavenly Father. The worshiper of the Babe in the manger must also worship Jesus the Son of God. It would never be right to reduce Christ to the story of his birth, as the world often does, so the things that we insist are true about a Christ-centered Christmas must also be true about a Christ-centered everyday life. This includes the gifts that come forth from The Gift as well.
Take a minute and think about the people on your gift list this year. How would you bless them with spiritual gifts? Can you share words of Scripture to encourage or edify them? Do you have skills of hospitality or service that you could present to them as a gift from a Christian brother or sister? Does the church have a need for your gift of teaching or leadership? And as for the Galatians list of gifts, who wouldn't benefit from being the benefactor in sharing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness or self-control? For me, there are certainly a few on that list that require some preparation on my knees so that I can give them with a heart that reflects Christ. And isn't giving with a heart that is mindful of Jesus what Christmas is all about? The church exists to declare the glory of Christ -- his person, his mission, his reign. If we stop celebrating on December 26, or January 6, or whenever the calendar says we have to, what does that say about how we view his person, his mission, and his reign year-round?
Near the end of Paul's letter to the Romans are exhortations to a community of believers about how to live as those who have been transformed by Christ:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, o“if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)
I think this is the epitome of the joy and merriment that we are supposed to be sharing at Christmas! My friend George Grant dissects the etymology of the word merry: "The word 'merry' is from an old Anglo-Saxon word which literally meant 'valiant,' 'illustrious,' 'great,' or 'mighty.' Thus, to be merry was not merely to be mirthful, but to be joyously strong and gallant. In Shakespeare we read of fiercely courageous soldiers who were called 'merry men.' Strong winds were 'merry gales.' Fine days were marked by 'merry weather.' So, when we wish one another 'Merry Christmas,' we are really exhorting one another to take heart and to stand fast! Merry Christmas!"
Our merry-making can be a vehicle to further the gospel, share the love of Jesus, and proclaim the wonder of Christmas and of all the works of Christ to a lost world. Our gift exchanges of service and grace and blessings can be the declaration of God's transforming power. I don't see how we can not go on with the festivities of the season-- so let the celebrations continue! May the gift exchange be neverending!
Merry Christmas! Merry Life!
All of Laura's Advent and Christmas postings are on her blog here.