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December 17, 2022

Here in mid-December, procrastinators will crowd retail stores, bargain hunters will search for reduced prices, and cyber shoppers will max out their credit cards in one final frenzy. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gifts will be given and received. On December 26, many will exchange their gifts for a more suitable size, style, or color.

Perhaps this is a time to rethink our gift-giving.

The story of the Magi tells of unusual people giving exotic gifts under strange circumstances.  Imagine A baby shower where the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were presented to the mother and child. As odd as these presents may seem, they were actually entirely appropriate.  In gift-giving, it is not only the thought that counts but also the meaning behind the gift. Gold is the gift for a person of royalty; frankincense is incense for a priest; myrrh is an embalming spice for one destined to die.

Well-chosen gifts need not be as extravagant as those of wise men.  One Christmas, our children and I enjoyed building and giving bluebird boxes as presents. The experience of making the nesting boxes, delivering the gifts, and knowing we were improving the environment brought triple satisfaction. Another year, I cut out breadboards. Clare added a loaf of homemade bread. One year, when our budget was especially tight, we made hand-cut paper snowflakes for family and friends. These simple gifts can be more meaningful than purchased items.

On Christmas Eve, Jeff and his extended family gathered in the living room of his grandmother’s home. The family had grown so large that they had decided to draw names instead of giving gifts to everyone. 

Aunt Ethel decided she didn’t want to draw names. A wealthy spinster, she could afford to give everybody a gift! She took delight in selecting and wrapping gifts. Her decorated presents were works of art.

When Jeff received the elongated, flat box decorated with a Styrofoam snowman, he thought that he knew what Aunt Ethel had given him. In early December, she had phoned to ask Jeff what he preferred. He carefully opened the box, keeping the cleverly crafted snowman intact. He was horrified! Aunt Ethel’s present was perhaps the ugliest necktie he had ever seen. It looked something like a bag of Purina Dog Chow. The pattern of large red and white checks.

Jeff’s face revealed his shock and disappointment. He lifted the tie from the tissue paper and looked into the empty box to be sure he hadn’t missed something. 

Aunt Ethel asked brusquely, “Don’t tell me you don’t like it.” 

Then she added, “It’s exactly what you said you wanted.”

Jeff responded, “Aunt Ethel when you asked me if I preferred a large check or a small check, I didn’t know you were talking about a necktie.”

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a purchased gift that we did not need or want. Homemade gifts are always a delight to receive.

In our home, we enjoy treasures that have been given to us in Christmases past. Cross-stitched pieces, knitted afghans, wooden serving trays, crocheted dishcloths, homemade aprons, paintings, and hand-thrown pottery are pleasant reminders of friends and family who have taken the time to make a gift.

One smart dad I know gave each family member a paper Christmas ornament. The ornaments were hung inconspicuously on the tree. On Christmas morning, as presents were opened, the family wondered why there were no gifts from Dad. After all of the other gifts had been unwrapped, the dad presented the paper ornaments to his family.

Tucked inside each ornament was a personal note. He gave his son a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, just for the two of them. He gave his daughter a three-day skiing trip, just for the two of them. To his wife, he gave a Caribbean cruise just for the two of them. The smart dad was a contemporary wise man. He not only gave presents to the people he loved, but he also gave the gift of presence, time to be with them.

O. Henry, a master storyteller, was renowned for his surprise endings. One of his best-known stories is the Christmas tale “The Gift of the Magi.”

A newly married couple, James and Della Young, were very much in love with each other. Because they were starting out with few resources, they had no extra money to purchase gifts for each other at Christmastime.

Jim wanted to give Della a set of silver combs for her long, beautiful flowing hair. Della wished she could give Jim a gold chain for the fine gold watch he had inherited. As Christmas approached, try though they might, neither Jim nor Della was able to accumulate enough money to purchase a gift for the other. They each came up with a secret plan.

On Christmas Eve, Della had her lovely hair cropped short. She sold her tresses to be used to make wigs for other women. Della purchased a gold chain for Jim’s treasured watch with the money she received.

When Della arrived at her home that night, her husband was, to say the least, quite surprised to see the new hairstyle. Della reached into her purse and took out a small package, which she handed to Jim.  When Jim opened his gift, he was astonished to see the gold watch chain.  When Della encouraged him to attach the chain to his watch, Jim hesitated and then gave his present to Della.

Upon opening her gift, Della was flabbergasted.  Jim’s gift to her was a set of expensive filigreed silver combs. She wondered how her husband could afford such a fine gift. She could have used those silver combs when her hair was long. Then Della realized that Jim had sold his watch to purchase a gift for her. They laughed together at the irony of their Christmas gifts to each other.

The two gifts perfectly represent sacrificial love. Jim and Della received material gifts that were of little value for the moment. But the gift that endured was their love for each other.

The best gifts are selfless, and sometimes enduring gifts come from unexpected sources.

A friend and former pastor had a custom of dropping by the church’s crisis closet from time to time. He often helped by filling grocery bags for those who had come for food. Some of the people in need came on a regular basis.

My colleague told me a story about an encounter he had with one of those repeat visitors, a homeless man who often had multiple needs. Over the years, the church had ministered to this man in various ways, but it was as if the church could never help him quite enough. I doubt if any church could have ever helped him sufficiently.

One Christmas Eve, the church held a worship service that concluded about 9:00 P.M. The pastor had preached the sermon at that service and was the last to leave the church. Just as he was locking the door and removing the key, he looked up and saw this same homeless man walking across the lawn of the church directly toward him.

The pastor knew the man would ask for help again, so he waited. The man walked up the steps to the church, reached out, and shook the pastor’s hand. Then he said, “I just came by to say thank you for the many things you have done for me and to tell you Merry Christmas.”

The pastor was astounded. The man had not made a single request on Christmas Eve. He had simply come by to express appreciation and to wish his friend a Merry Christmas. With that, the man turned, walked back down the steps, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

The gift of gratitude is a special Christmas blessing.

At the heart of the Christian celebration of Christmas is a gift. It is a present, not wrapped in colorful paper with a big bow, but a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. That gift is a relationship. It is a present of presence. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus because He is Emmanuel, God with us. For those in the Christian faith, Jesus is the ultimate gift, the gift of God’s presence with us.

This Christmas, consider fretting less about presents and concentrate on giving the gift of presence. It will enrich your Christmas giving.

Clare joins me in wishing you a blessed Christmas.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

December Light 1916 is a Christmas novel by Kirk H. Neely.

It is available at all fine bookstores and all online booksellers.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week consider giving the gift of presence to someone who needs to know they are loved. Thank you.

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