St Nicholas morphed into Father Christmas, when Roman Catholic notions of ‘sainthood’ became unpopular in the era of the Reformation.
St Nick himself was an inhabitant of Myra in Turkey, more than 100 years before Christianity came to Scotland. As Christianity became embedded here, some pre-existing practices ceased, while others were adapted as they found a natural resonance with Christianity. Gift-giving, was one of the latter – St Nicholas was welcome here.
Thanks to that tradition, millions of us now sit looking bewildered in front of an online shop, or stand frustrated in a physical shop – as that ‘perfect gift’ for a particular person doesn’t seem to appear in front of us. I may not be alone in wanting to channel my inner Ebenezer Scrooge, and shout “Bah, humbug!” to it all.
The post-unwrapping anti-climax that follows the receipt of an unwanted present is surely one of today’s unofficial Christmas rituals.
One of the perks of being a very small child is that expressing this kind of disappointment is permitted, while adults are expected to euphemise their sense of having been underwhelmed, with adjectives such as “interesting” or “unusual!”
The ultimate ‘gift-fail’ is when the whole room can see that the unsuitable gift in the recipient’s disappointed hands, would in fact be the dream gift for the giver – and is the result of a complete failure of empathy and imagination on their part. I remember being given a particularly hideous, garishly decorated tie – by a notorious wearer of hideous garish ties.
There is a whole genre of psychological studies into empathy, examining at what stage a person is able to picture, draw or describe a scene, (visually, emotionally or practically) from another’s perspective. Good gift-giving requires at least a basic level of this kind of maturation of the prefrontal cortex.
According to one writer, the perfect present fulfils four criteria, in that it must be personal, purposeful, paid for, and meaningful.
Personal, in that it has either been made by or carefully chosen, so that there is some self-revelation of the giver in the gift. The online megastore’s gift recommendation algorithm may be smart, but if every 67-year-old grandmother in Kirkcaldy was allotted the same matching scarf and hat on December 25, there would be something of a humanity deficit in the process! Great gift-giving has to be personal.
The gift also has to be purposeful, in that it will be enthusiastically used or enjoyed, not put up for sale on Gumtree by Boxing Day.
The gift must be paid for, in that it has cost the giver something and is not stolen property!
The price tag on a gift is not everything, but we reserve our most expensive presents for those we actually love the most. The price isn’t nothing either.
Finally the perfect gift will be meaningful, in that it creates a relationally significant and joyful response in the recipient.
The four criteria of the perfect gift. Frankly, who can manage all of that? However, the roots of the St Nicholas tradition are deeply embedded in the idea that this is exactly what God achieved in the birth of Christ.
Christians across Scotland will be gathering this month to celebrate God’s great gift to the world. The gift is personal, it is the self-revelation of God in his son.
It was CS Lewis who once remarked that if Hamlet were to dialogue with Shakespeare it could only be at Shakespeare’s instigation. In Christ, God writes himself into our human story.
The first Christmas was a deeply personal, self-revelatory gift. The gift is also purposeful, in that in Christ, God offers the world, light, joy, peace, meaning and of course, purpose. This gift is not a redundant trinket, but an exact fit for the human condition.
Likewise the gift is paid for, in that it is God’s to give – and He does so willingly.
The climax of this trajectory of generosity is of course the Cross of Christ, where the vast debt of our sinfulness is paid in the ultimate act of altruism.
Finally the gift is also meaningful, in that when it is received it forges a deep bond between giver and recipient.
That is a bond that the writers of the New Testament insisted was personal, spiritual, experiential and everlasting. This is what Christians across Scotland will be gathering to celebrate this Christmas.
Gavin Matthews for Solas.