Jimmy Akin has an interesting meditation on why gift-giving is good and how to keep our Christmas celebrations focused on Christ. Here’s a couple of excerpts:
The real meaning of Christmas is Christ, and to convey the idea that it is anything else, whether commercialistic or sentimentalistic is to confuse the epiphenomena for the Phenomenon that occasions them.
Yet I find myself agreeing with B16, too.
It’s natural to give gifts as part of a celebration. When the Jewish people were saved from Haman’s plot against them in the book of Esther, they exchanged presents of food with each other (9:22). There’s a certain naturalness to that, particularly in an age when food was not as cheap and easily available as it is today. But even apart from the biblical precedent, the exchange of gifts as a sign of joy is a human universal.
There is a familiar pattern that shows up across cultures whenever something is being celebrated. The details may vary, and not every element may be present in each celebration or in each culture, but in the main, whenever humans celebrate something you’re going to find a familiar cluster: eating, drinking, singing, dancing, gift-giving, and decorating.
. . . If you were one of the Israelites who came through the Red Sea, you wouldn’t have needed special celebrations to evoke feelings of awe and joy and thanksgiving to God. But 3500 years later? It’s a different story.
In the same way, if we were there at the manger on the night of the first Christmas—in Bethlehem—knowing the significance of the night, we wouldn’t need special assistance in evoking feelings of awe and joy and thanksgiving. But 2000 years later, it’s a different story.
Because of the distance that exists between us and the events we are celebrating, and given the way the human psyche works—at least in its fallen form—we need assistance to help evoke the feelings that we recognize are appropriate for the event we are celebrating. And so we employ elements of the human celebration pattern to help raise us to the level where—at least in a fallen, partial, incomplete way that doesn’t compare to what we would feel if we could go back and be in Bethlehem on that first Christmas—we feel some of what is appropriate.
We use the epiphenomena (the external elements of celebration) to help us appreciate the Phenomenon that occasions them.
That’s just the way humans work.
And so the celebration pattern not only allows us to express joy but to create joy as well.