Have you ever taken part in a ‘Secret Santa’, where you anonymously purchase and wrap a Christmas gift for a friend or a work colleague? Well, Secret Santas are perhaps closer to the original idea behind gift-giving than our modern-day practice of adding gift tags to let the person know the identity of the giver. Let me explain.
The church does this thing, where, over the course of a year, we remember specific people; stand-out Christians who were, in the past, noted for doing something particularly noble or special. We call these people Saints (which comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’, meaning holy). And this week we remembered — in the truest sense — none other than Santa Claus! “What?” I hear you cry, “Santa Claus was a Christian Saint?” Yes! Santa Claus is descended from the Dutch ‘Sinter Klaas’, which is a shortened version of ‘Sint Nikolaas’, which, in English, is Saint Nicholas, and Saint Nicholas was a very real person. St. Nick was Bishop of Myra (in what is now modern day Turkey) and he was known for giving gifts in secret. That was his thing. He then later became patron saint of brewing and fishermen (so he gets my vote!)
You see, the original idea of gift giving was to be like St. Nick, and give gifts in secret, to not let the recipient know you had given them, and to not let others know you were the giver. Can you imagine what it would be like if one year you gave all your Christmas gifts in secret? It would mean you would not get any credit or kudos, nor would you get any thanks, and let us be honest, we love our recipients to know it was us that gave them that truly amazing, expensive, thoughtful present, and we want them to be grateful! To give in secret means it would not be about us, but all about the person receiving the gift.
St. Nick’s practice of giving in secret was based on Jesus’ teaching where he said this, “Be careful not to do your good deeds in front of other people. When you give to the needy, don’t shout it from the rooftops so you’ll be honored by others, but instead, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand’s doing, so that your giving will be in secret.” (Paraphrased from Matthew 6:1-4).
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of the receiver of a secret gift. What does it feel like to receive an anonymous gift? Because you did not ask for it, it makes you feel considered and special, that there is nothing you did to deserve it, and that it is wholly given out of love and care for you. A gift free of any relational ties means that nothing is asked of you, and there is no expectation of having to give in return. It is a gift in its truest form.
To give anonymously — and to give without expecting anything in return — means we gain nothing and, in some ways, this is costly to our ego, but it is very good for our soul. The fact that Jesus asks us to give in this way is not because he is asking us to do something that he would not do himself. In fact, Jesus demonstrates, through the gift of his life, and eventually his death, what God is like, and his teaching enables us to be more like him. This Advent we wait for Christmas, for God’s free gift of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. We did not ask for it, we do not deserve it, there is nothing we can do to earn it, and we do not need to repay it. All we have to do is accept it.
This week, Pope Francis, head of the Catholic church, posted this on Twitter, “God never tires of waiting for us. When we turn away, he comes to look for us. When we fall, he picks us up. When we return to him after losing our way, he waits for us with open arms. His love always gives us the courage to start anew.” I love that. Therefore, perhaps, this Christmas as we receive God’s greatest gift to us, we in turn will give gifts to others — and perhaps, just maybe, we might do so for someone in secret; to bless them and encourage them, that they may know that they too are accepted and loved and welcomed with open arms.