The Perfect Gift

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.

—James 1:17

Many of us received gifts yesterday for Christmas, but our greatest gift came from above. Isaiah 9:6 predicted that gift, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” God sent Jesus to this earth to offer us salvation and to save us from the sins of this world. He taught a message of faith, love, hope, and charity.

Gift giving at Christmas is a Christian tradition that is widely practiced around the world. However, the practice is not something that is exclusive to Christianity, as several other religions mark the end of the year with a similar custom, such as the Jewish festival of lights Hanukkah or the Hindu celebration of Pancha Ganapati in honor of Lord Ganesha.

In many parts of the Christian world, January 6 is celebrated as Three Kings Day, also known as Epiphany. In Spain and Latin America, Three Kings Day is the day when children receive gifts, not Christmas Day. For many other Christian cultures, the gifts given at Christmas are also symbolic of the tributes made to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men, or Magi, after his birth during the story of the Nativity. Matthew 2:1-12 describes the Magi, who tradition gives the names as Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, journeying to the location of Jesus’s birth by following a star, and upon their arrival, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

However, the tradition of gift giving extended long before the founding of Christianity, with roots in the festivals of the ancient Romans—in particular the festival of Saturnalia, where thanks were given to the bounty provided by the agricultural god Saturn. The festivities took place from the 17th to the 23rd of December, and were celebrated with a sacrifice and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continued partying, and a wild atmosphere where social standings were done away with. During this feast, slaves would be considered the equal of their masters and free speech was embraced.

The day that gifts were exchanged in Ancient Rome was known as Sigillaria and took place on the December 19th. As gifts of value were in contradiction to the spirit of the season, the Romans exchanged more modest items, such as candles, seasonal figurines, and ‘gag gifts’, which were designed to amuse or terrify the other guests. Etiquette dictated that the lowlier the gift, the stronger the bond of friendship it was said to represent. Some bosses often gave a gratuity known as a ‘sigillarcium’ to their clients or employees in order to help them purchase their gifts.

Unlike many of the more cultish festivals held in the Roman Empire, Saturnalia was widely celebrated throughout all of the territories of Rome at the end of the calendar year. As it was a much-loved festival thanks to its carefree atmosphere, generous gift-giving, and lavish entertainments, people were less inclined to give up its popular traditions. This made it a lot harder to deal with when the religious status quo changed in the Empire.

The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 312 signaled the beginning of the end of pagan celebrations in the Empire, but early religious leaders couldn’t simply ban the popular Saturnalia, as there would be a backlash. There is a theory that they used many of the traits of the festival when establishing Christmas, a rival feast that would take Saturnalia’s place, but commemorate a Christian occasion: the birth of Jesus. The exchange of gifts was probably one of the traditions carried over from the old to the new.

The old pagan custom of gift-giving was rationalized into Christianity by attaching strong associations with the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, and was also likely influenced by the life of Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th century saint who was famed for his fondness of giving people gifts. When he was venerated as a saint, he became more widely known as Saint Nicholas, which is recognizable as the origin of the name Santa Claus.

Our greatest Christmas gift though, no matter the tradition’s origins, is the message Jesus brought with his teachings. He gave us the gift of salvation. To honor His birth, which was probably not in late December, we need to remember His message all year long. As James 1:17 reminds us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” Jesus offered us a message of faith, love, hope, and charity, and the best way we can honor is birth is to spears that message. If we live our life in a way that honors the teachings of Jesus, not the teachings of man, we can live by example and show that the world can be a better place. If we honor Jesus’ teachings of love, hope, and charity, then we will have faith in the goodness of this world. It is the greatest gift we can give. Love is chief among those gifts, and love is always free. Give the gift of love today.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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