Christmas morning is here. Your little ones awaken at the crack of dawn—if not earlier—and eagerly run through the house screaming “Let’s open our presents!” Still in bed, you try to buy some extra shut-eye, but it’s no use. Your children are now in bed with you, jumping up and down. They chant things which have little to do with “peace on earth and goodwill to all” and more with the advertising campaigns launched well before the beginning of the holiday season. You reluctantly roll over and get up, realizing that if you don’t, it is only a matter of time until one of your little cherubs lands on your stomach. Does this sound familiar? Trust me; you’re not alone. Big business partnered with media has done a tremendous job of teaching our children what they want Christmas to be about—presents and lots of them!
But let’s look at this a different way—whose birthday is it anyway? What have we done to teach our children the true meaning of Christmas? Would we send our child to a friend’s birthday party with a present for themselves? While I’m not advocating doing away with traditional Christmas gift-giving, we should aim to gain some perspective amidst the scads of boxes and rollsof wrapping paper. Each Christmas we need to ask ourselves and our families what we should get Christ. It is His birthday after all.
The Gift of the Magi
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the Magi (also known as wise men) followed the star to the Christ child. When they arrived they worshiped Him and presented Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These three gifts were of great monetary value, but their treasure lay in the significance of each present. The gold was a gift for a king, the frankincense was a gift for God, and the Myrrh was a gift for someone who was to die. The Magi’s offering honored who Christ is and what He came to do for mankind. They presented these treasures out of respect for the King of Heaven and Earth. In the book The Year of Grace of the Lord, we read:
Like the Magi, we offer our treasures and we offer the little child the most precious things we have. In spirit we offer gold, the sign of Jesus’ sovereignty over all riches and all created things, a sign also of our own detachment from earthly goods. In spirit we offer incense, the sign of adoration, for Jesus is not only the king of the universe, he is our God. We offer in spirit myrrh, the spice with which we honor in advance the death and burial of Jesus and through which too, is represented our own renunciation of bodily pleasures. Lord Jesus, accept my offering.
There is a fictional story told about a fourth wise man named Artaban. He was to meet up with the other three Magi and journey to see the newborn Christ. With him, Artaban had three valuable jewels to give the newborn baby. Along the way, he came across an injured man who needed assistance. In order to help, he needed to sell one of the jewels he had and, because of this, he was delayed and he did not make it to Nazareth to worship Him. But he did not give up, and he set off to follow the Holy Family to Egypt where they fled with the Christ child. On his way, he assisted a woman whose baby boy was about to be slain because of Herod’s order and bought his freedom with the second jewel and never found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
Artaban wandered for 33 years searching for the Christ to give Him the last jewel. Finally, he heard that Jesus was to be crucified in Jerusalem. He rushed there with plans to use the jewel as a ransom for Christ’s life. On his road, he stopped to help a young girl who was being beaten by two soldiers, and consequently, used the final gift he had intended to give Christ. A little while later, when Jesus was dying on the Cross, Artaban realized that he could neither free Him nor pay tribute to Him, as he did not have any jewels left. He collapsed from sorrow. But when he was lying face down, he heard a voice, saying: “I was hungry and thirsty and you gave me food and drink; I was naked and sick and you clothed me and visited me.” (Adapted from Lovely Little Stories for People of All Ages by Metropolitan Germanos Polizoides)
What do we get our King for His birthday? We offer to Him lives that witness to His love. Here are some practical suggestions to get your family started this Christmas. You don’t need to do them all—start simple, adapt and add to them to work for you family, and above all else get your whole family involved.
- Remember the Reason for the Season—This may seem like a cliché, but the fact that we are celebrating Christ’s Nativity needs to become the primary focus of our family’s Christmas. The exchange of gifts should be secondary. Make sure to attend services for the Nativity as a family. Teach everyone how to chant the Apolytikion (you can for the feast and learn more about the feast. You can find this information by searching for “nativity” at www.goarch.org. Make sure you have a copy of the icon placed prominently where your family often gathers in the home. If you don’t have one, consider ordering one at www.orthodoxmarketplace.com.
- Give a Gift of your Time—Yes, it is a busy time of year, but carve out time to spend preparing for the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Find time every day to be quiet, read the Bible, and pray. Also, consider other ways you can give of your time. Talk to your parish priest and see if there are any shut-ins that could use visitors. If you prefer, perhaps there are some tasks around the church like cleaning or organizing that could use your help.
- Give a Gift of Your Talent—Each of us has been created by God with different gifts and talents. The greatest present we can give our Lord is to fulfill our abilities through a life of obedient faith. God has given us everything and we should actively seek ways to give glory to Him. Everyone has some way they can offer themselves to others. Consider activities that you enjoy or things you are good at and how you can share those blessings and talents with others. Be as creative as possible and always look for opportunities to reflect Christian love.
- Give a Gift of Your Treasure—Christmas can be an expensive time of year, but if we are making Christ’s Nativity the primary focus, it only makes sense that we should allow some of our Christmas spending to go towards helping the less fortunate. Talk to your parish priest or local Philoptochos chapter for ideas on how to help out. Each of us should give within our means. But we should try to be as generous as we can, and we need to teach our children to do the same.
- Practice Random Acts of Kindness—This can be a lot of fun for your family to try to do. Try to do little things for others daily and try not to get caught doing them. Shovel the snow your neighbor’s sidewalk while they are away. Pay the toll for the car behind you. Anonymously leave cookies on your co-workers’ desks. The possibilities are limitless.
It is never too late to offer a gift to Christ. Even if you are just getting around to reading this in January or even March, don’t wait until next Christmas to get started. To really honor the birth of Christ, our gifts will not be confined to the period of Christmas but, rather, it will become a part of our life. Actually, life is the gift and we should thank God for the blessing of it and offer back to Him every single day. In closing, take some time to reflect on the following prayer from the Vespers of the Nativity. Pray it as a family. May the joy of our Lord’s Nativity guide you through out this blessed season.
What shall we offer You, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on the earth as a man?
Every creature which You have made offers You thanks.
The angels offer You a song. The heavens, their star.
The wise men, their gifts. The shepherds, their wonder.
The earth, its cave. The wilderness, the manger.
And we offer You a Virgin Mother. O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!
Melissa Tsongranis is the associate director of the Center for Family Care. Her background and education is in Early Childhood Special Education and Family Education from California State University, Sacramento. She and her husband, George, have one son, Nomikos, who turned one this past July.