December 13

The Real Gifts of Christmas

December 13, 2012

Personal Growth

Oh, the joys of Christmas: lights twinkling their message of cheer, carols filling the air and lifting our spirits, tables groaning with their burdens of candies and pies soon to be devoured. And then there's the shopping. When I was a boy, Christmas shopping began the first day of December, but then the stores began to decorate for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, and now—many years later—some stores begin their decorating in mid-September.

For many of us, however, this end-of-the-year holiday brings more than just merriment, as typified by the following letter I received:

"There's a lot to like about Christmas. The world gets lighter. Some people even become nicer than usual. But every year I kill myself running all over town, trying to get just the right gifts for all the people on my list. And for what? Half the people aren't satisfied with what I get, and the other half are only satisfied for a few minutes. Seems like a lot of trouble for very little. On the other hand, if I don't buy any presents, people will get mad, so what can I do?"

I have to struggle to remember a single Christmas present I ever received. Which of them ever produced a lasting sense of satisfaction or genuine happiness? In our search for the gifts we believe people want, we often fail to consider what people really need.

There is no earthly treasure more precious than the feeling that comes from a knowledge that other people genuinely care about our happiness without wanting something from us in return. We want the kind of love where people are not disappointed or irritated at us if we make mistakes and inconvenience them. We need love that is unconditional—Real Love. Regrettably, few of us have known that kind of love. Instead, people have tended to like us only when we've been responsible, cooperative, beautiful or handsome, and successful. The people around us have often proved the conditional nature of their "love" for us with their disappointment and irritation—demonstrated by their words, tone of voice, posture, and other behaviors—on the occasions when we've failed to behave as they wished.

If we can't have Real Love—the absence of which is intolerably painful—we settle for buying the conditional approval of other people. We try to look good, say the right things, and do nice things for people so they will like us. Somehow we sense that we're buying "love" with our behavior, but it still feels better than no approval at all.

Earning the affection of other people is a lot of work—most of us devote our entire lives to this effort---but what else can we do? We can't live without approval, so we're willing to keep on earning it, no matter what effort is required. We're stuck. At Christmas—where we rush around buying presents to please people and to avoid their displeasure—our need for approval is all the more obvious.

Some people wince at this description of holiday "giving," believing that it's too harsh, but look at what happens if we fail to buy the right gift—or we buy nothing at all. Most people are disappointed or annoyed, proving without doubt that they needed us to behave in a certain way before they could accept us. Under these conditions no one feels loved unconditionally.

Often I hear people say, "I HAVE to do my Christmas shopping," but if we give gifts from that sense of obligation, we don't truly give anything—we're just hostages, imprisoned by expectations. We need not be slaves to these seasonal expectations. We can make our own choices about giving. We may choose to no longer give presents to some people. If they are annoyed, we simply learn about the conditional nature of those relationships. To others we may choose to continue giving gifts, but not because we're afraid of what they will think if we don't.

I'm not suggesting that anyone stop giving Christmas gifts, but I am saying that we can free ourselves from the stress of the season. For years, I've made no Christmas purchases, with the exception of those for young grandchildren, for whom gifts are a magical tradition. My wife and I enjoy Christmas music, the food, the decorations, and a blaze in the fireplace. But neither of us buys a thing for the other. We're not trying to make a statement. We simply don't need such gifts in order to feel loved. Instead we enjoy spending time with family members and friends. When we started doing this, a few people were offended, but either they got over it as they realized our intent, or they decided our friendship had no value to them. The result was positive in both cases.

Christmas is a joyful opportunity to heighten our year-long expressions of unconditional love with friends and family. Rather than giving—or perhaps in addition to giving—a card or box, imagine the joy we could bring into the lives of others by offering forgiveness for past offenses. Or we might sit with a friend or family member and describe a mistake we've made that has caused pain in that person's life. As we offer such gifts, not only do we bring light and love into the lives of others, but we immeasurably enrich ourselves.

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