What does Christmas mean to you?

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Ask yourself, what does Christmas mean to you? 

Is it the Christmas gifts? The long-awaited meetings with family and friends? Is it the entire Christmas celebration: from the first lights, the first fall of snow, the glittering window displays, the sound of Christmas music in the frosted air, or is it the family sitting down together to share one of the most important moments of the year? For every one of us, Christmas means something different, something uniquely individual.

With its origins as a Christian festival, Christmas has crossed religious, cultural, and social boundaries to become a highlight of the year for almost everyone. Christmas is the bringer of light when the year is at its lowest and darkest ebb. 

Etched deeply into this Christian faith is the message of hope, of new beginnings, of unity, of togetherness, and celebration. And as humans, we have warmly embraced this coming of light and brightness in a time of unflinching darkness.

In more recent times, the lines between a secular and non-secular Christmas have become blurred. According to a report by Pew Research, more than 2 billion people in more than 160 countries consider Christmas to be the most important holiday of the year. In the United States, 9 in 10 people celebrate Christmas as a major holiday – even if they are not Christian. It seems that people everywhere have come to love the ideas instilled in the notion and the celebration of Christmas.

The story of Christmas gifts

Giving gifts is synonymous with Christmas, but where did the idea begin?

It is commonly accepted that the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the Three Kings were the very first examples of Christmas gift-giving. With their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi – Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar – started a tradition that would outlast the millennia.

However, it should also be noted that gift-giving in mid-winter was also central to pagan traditions. The pagan celebration of the winter solstice, or yule, the rebirth of the unconquered sun, was subsequently applied to Christianity as the rebirth of the unconquered Son.

It can also be claimed that Christmas gift-giving may have its origins in modern Europe with the popularity of Christmas begging. Christmas in the middle ages was a different concept than what we have come to know today. During the holiday period at that time, bands of youth, often drunk and badly-behaved, would go from home to home in an act called ‘wassailing’ demanding gifts and handouts from the prosperous homeowners.

But, it wasn’t until the 1800s, when the celebration was embraced across the United States that Christmas gift-giving came of age. With the focus changed from giving alms to the poor to giving gifts to children the marketing industry saw its golden opportunity and the Christmas we have come to know was born, not in a manager, but in the shopping malls and the rush towards consumerism.

Whatever its origins or evolution, the act of exchanging Christmas gifts has become FIRMLY embedded in our modern ideas of Christmas and the festive season. But, as in the past, the spirit and practices of Christmas are constantly changing and evolving. Even the gifts we give, and the thinking behind the gift choices we are making have changed, and in many cases, this change is for the better.

The rise of giving unique Christmas gifts

It may sound far-fetched, and even ridiculous by our modern standards, but it wasn’t so long ago that children in the UK, and across most of Europe, received pieces of fruit as their sole Christmas gifts. Oranges, bananas, and pineapples were all considered exotic, and unknown in post-World War II Britain, making them the perfect and novel gifts for children accustomed to rationing and scarcity. Life, it seems, was simple then.

As the years passed and life became more prosperous for many, the marketeers got to work once again and raised the stakes of Christmas gifting. Christmas presents were no longer portrayed as things you may want, but as things that you need. 

These marketing gurus relied on the notion that parents wanted to give their children the presents that they were denied due to war, shortage, and poverty. They wanted their children to have better lives than they had to endure – and that notion has not gone away.

The gift makers responded in style. Toy manufacturers grew rich and controlled the market with supply and demand. New products were churned out yearly and presented to the waiting world, using marketing budgets more akin to the figures associated with a NASA space launch. There was, it seems, a lot of money to be made from Christmas.

This trend of giving more and more lavish gifts increased exponentially. Reaching the point where the majority of the gifts we gave were, while well-intentioned barely gave real satisfaction or had any lasting value.

All of that is finally changing, with people now realizing that giving unique gifts that possess real meaning, and offer a higher emotional response are becoming the norm. The notion of giving gifts is fast changing from the possession of material things to the giving of valuable life experiences, and gifts that have the power to change the world as we see it.

The growth of experience Christmas gifts

How we celebrate Christmas, and the choice of Christmas gifts we give, has been turned on its head in recent times. We have learned to value the things we once thought of as being commonplace. Things like the company of others, the experiences which nature and travel have to offer, sharing what little we may have with strangers, and a concern for the planet, have all become top of our wish lists.

This change in attitude has seen a rise in the practice of giving real, life-enhancing experiences as Christmas gifts. Rather than giving jewelry, perfumes, clothing, or any other material possessions, it seems that experiences have become the stocking-filler most in demand. These experience gifts come in many guises and are designed to add real meaning to the recipient’s life.

From balloon flights in incredible locations, making discoveries in nature, learning a new skill with an expert, appreciating the world of art and culture, testing ourselves with exciting adventures, to culinary experiences that will live a lifetime in both memory and the retelling of our stories, these are the new currency of Christmas gifting. 

Travel Christmas gifts – for when it’s safe to travel again – offer hope for a better, brighter future, and create a feeling that will last from the moment of receipt to the moment of the actual experience.

We are learning that giving experiences as Christmas gifts, such as spa and wellness treatments, courses for learning new skills, and introductions to new cultures, live longer than the moment in which they were experienced. These are experiences that last long into the future, and serve to enhance our lives and change our fundamental thinking on how life should be lived. 

There is no watch, bracelet, or perfume that could ever make the same claim.

How a Christmas gift can change a life

I once knew a child who received a telescope as a Christmas gift. It was a unique Christmas gift, unlike the Lego, the train sets, the football gear of the previous years, it was a gift that would somehow form his life.

That child used his telescope wherever and whenever he could. He observed birds in trees, distant dogs in distant neighbor’s yards, and the workmen in the tower cranes of the steel factory close to his home. With every new discovery, the boy wanted to know more, he wanted to see further, he wanted to explore the secrets beyond the next horizon. His curiosity has been enflamed.

With the passing of the years, the telescope lost its clarity, its housing cracked and broke, and eventually, even the lenses that once offered a new and crystal clear view of the world became loose from their housing. That thoughtful Christmas gift of his childhood was no longer.

However, the curiosity the gift has instilled remained with him for a lifetime. He traveled the world, always wanting to see further, to meet new cultures, to taste new tastes, to hear new and foreign tongues, and to record a life that was he once thought would be forever out of focus. A simple Christmas gift, given with meaning, and given with a purpose, left its mark for life.

Material possessions will come and go, but a Christmas chosen with the well-being of the recipient in mind will offer an experience to be lived, a host of memories to serve us long into the future, and a bank of stories with which to enrich our lives and the lives of others.

With all of that in mind, perhaps this year we should try digging deeper into the real meaning of our Christmas celebrations. We could start by thinking back on the year that just been, and discovering, or rediscovering the connections that are most important to us will help us to choose wisely when it comes to Christmas gifts. More than ever we need to find the true Christmas meaning and to celebrate the positives, and the negatives that have influenced and continue to influence our lives. 

Christmas means something different to everyone. But we must try to remember, that it’s not just receiving gifts that can make us happy, but that act of giving can often bring greater happiness.

Happy Christmas to everyone.