On Giving, On Receiving

We’re almost there, gang. It’s Christmas Eve Eve (historically noted as the longest day ever in the history of long days, especially if you are a child or the parent of small children). We’re *this* close to the culmination of all of our Advent waiting and there’s much hustle and bustle to finish up last-minute preparations.

All of that looks different this year, of course. Added to the anticipation of the holiday is some extra heartache and anxiety…you know, just to keep things spicy. It’s always easy to get caught up and swept away by this time of year and to lose focus of the bigger picture but this year has added stress in places most of us haven’t previously navigated. The shadow of the pandemic has created an environment of panicked searching of tracking numbers and shipping notifications. Many of us won’t be seeing our family and friends this holiday, so more emphasis is placed on exchanging gifts in a different way, more stress is put on the fear that things won’t make it in time, or there are too many gifts for one kid and not enough for the other one so now we have to take our lives into our hands and go back to Target, and why are we even doing a secret Santa this year anyway, and what’s even the point, and on and on and on.

To which I say, “Woah Nelly.”

Be still. Take a breath.

Let’s take a minute to break it down together and consider our relationship to giving and receiving in general.

Here’s what my pal, Henri, has to say.

A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.

Henri Nouwen

Okay, so why are we giving gifts? The obvious answer is that gift giving is a way to communicate love to one another. Taking the time to curate and research a lovely gift for someone is tangible proof of our thoughtfulness and consideration for them. Gosh that’s beautiful. It is such a good and valuable thing.

And yet.

As with many good and valuable things in our world, giving and receiving can so easily be twisted. Somehow what was initially a physical act of love toward our father-in-law becomes a competition with our spouse’s siblings. What was a way to show our boss how much we appreciate her becomes an opportunity to advance our career. What was meant to be a helpful gift becomes a physical manifestation of the way we think someone ought to be living their life. Worse, we often give out of obligation not real generosity, a motive that is easily communicated to the recipient.

The same goes with receiving. What was meant as a helpful gift from our parents is received as commentary on our lifestyle. That gift that is not equivalent to the one we offered is a physical manifestation of our value in the eyes of the giver. Perhaps we receive an extravagant gift and feel somehow less than, unworthy, or worse exploited. Did they really want to give me that huge present or are they using me to show off?

What was meant to be a good and beautiful thing for the other becomes about us: If he likes this gift enough, I’ll know that he’s really into me. If their gift is better than mine, my gift was not enough. I am not enough. If I give them this cleaning system, maybe they’ll actually take care of their home the right way. If the kids love these toys, they’ll love me. If they gave me this huge gift it means I will owe them something. I can’t accept that expensive thing because I don’t deserve it.

Deep breath.

Remember what’s true.

No amount of gifts or any signs of generosity can define us the way Christ does. Gifts do not serve to be trophies or monuments that prove our belovedness. They are, rather, tools to communicate that we see and love others right where they are.

Receiving an extravagant gift has nothing to do with our inherent value. It is not a commentary on our financial or social status. It shouldn’t challenge our view of our own worthiness. It is, perhaps, an opportunity to receive and by receiving, bless the giver. Allowing others to love us in the way that they are able is a gift in and of itself.

When we don’t feel worthy to receive a gift or don’t feel deserving of extravagance from loved ones, we must consider what “deserving” even means. None of us is getting what we deserve…at least I pray that we aren’t! We are all sinners, all fall short of the glory of God. Christ never gives us what we actually deserve, praise God. The entire point of Christmas is that we are given exactly what we do not deserve, the ultimate extravagant gift: salvation. So “deserving” shouldn’t really play into receiving gifts. It can be a humbling thing to receive a gift that we don’t feel worthy of. Let’s use it as an opportunity to embrace humility, remembering our Savior who offers us His precious body and blood specifically because we are not deserving.

The reaction of the recipient to our gift is not about us. We should give, not out of an expectation of approval from the person to whom we are giving, but purely to bless them and love them no strings attached. It sounds silly, but we need to give to one another with open hands. We need to give without expectation. Generosity doesn’t follow up two months later to see if they’re using that new Roomba properly or scan their social media posts to see if they’re sporting that new scarf. Generosity is giving with open hands, trusting that our identity and value does not rest in whether or not someone appreciates what we have to offer.

Whatever the next few days look like for you, I pray that you will take Truth deep into your core and settle into it. Giving and receiving are not about you. No pile of presents, no number of lost packages, late arrivals, or any offering that doesn’t quite hit the mark can touch the truth of who you are in the eyes of the Creator. You are good. Full stop. You are lovely and loved. Period. You are valuable and worthy just as you are, just where you are. So are the people you’re giving to this Christmas. The gift of yourself in all your imperfect humanity is the most beautiful offering you can give. Receiving the ugly, imperfect, confusing, frustrating humans in your life and loving them despite all that is receiving Christ’s call to us all.

I pray that we’ll all be able to give and receive with open hands this Christmas. My prayer as we round out this year is that we’ll find Him. In the absences at the table and the disappointments and the anxious fears about being good enough or making the right choice to travel or anger over how that uncle voted or worry that these people we’re related to don’t actually really know us, I pray that we will feel His presence.

He’s there. He really is. In the piles of wrapping paper and the beat up boxes that arrive three days late. In the sibling arguments and the absolutely awful presents, He’s there. He’s waiting for us. The baby will be born and laid in a manger and He’s waiting. He will grow up to be beaten, bruised, mangled, and murdered for us. He’s here in the midst of the hurt and the mess, in the giving and receiving of gifts, deeply present in these presents we’ve chosen that try to hijack our worthiness. He’s there quietly repeating the foundational truth of our belovedness: He came specifically for us. He chose this. He chose us.


Merriest Christmas, my beautiful friends. You are so, incredibly loved.

Mary Susan

Deck the Halls

Welp. ‘Tis the season to haul out some seasonal decor and succumb to the power of twinkle lights. I think this year those in the “Don’t Decorate Before Thanksgiving” camp are finally allowing the rest of us the grace to just follow our little elfin hearts without judgement. Perhaps this is a silver lining of *all of this* going on?

For those of you in the “Decorate for Christmas Yesterday” camp, this post is for you. You know who you are. The moment the calendar rolled over into November and you immediately heard the siren song of Bing Crosby jing-jing-a-ling-ing in your ears. You’ve already planned where the tree will go, plotted the arrangement of lights and tinsel, and are just filled to the brim with holiday giddiness. Some of you may have already decorated the shiz out of your house, no looking back, you’re in love, you’re in love, and you don’t care who knows it!

But if you’re someone who has been feeling the nostalgia of the season swell but haven’t yet pulled the tinsel trigger, I need you to listen unto me. 

This weekend may be the weekend and you’re making great plans to deck the halls and twirl and frolic through your living room while you blare holiday tunes like Kevin McCalister. That is good and lovely and completely allowed. Go forth and garland, girls and boys! Lord knows we need some tinsel up in here to lighten the mood. 

But.

However.

Hang on there just a minute, you cotton-headed ninny muggins.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer because clearly we don’t need any more of those. What I do want to be is Rhonda Realistic and remind you that decorating your house will probably not be fun. Or at least it won’t be as fun as you think and wish and hope it will be in your sweet little heart of Hallmark hearts. 

Here’s the deal, y’all. Decorating for Christmas usually involves some rearranging of furniture and therefore deep cleaning. Or at minimum some sweeping up of cobwebs. If you’re like me and you don’t want your house to look like you slapped Christmas on the crypt from the Mummy you’re gonna have to do some light dusting and/or run the leaf blower through the house.

Also, you’ll be forced to relocate Mount Laundry to a different room to be dealt with later. (And yes, I plan to just use Mount Laundry as a decoration and put a star on top, thank you to all my sweet readers for giving me that idea. God bless you, every one.)

So anyway, none of that is necessarily fun. 

Around here, decorating for Christmas feels like one of those stupid plastic tile puzzles you get from the cardboard treasure chest at the dentist’s office that’s supposed to make a picture. You can get, like, two or three tiles in place but you have to move them all again to get the next one and before you know it it’s a complete cluster that’s best left jammed between some couch cushions. 

If you’ve got kids, decorating seems like it will be a fun family activity. I mean, it ought to be. However, much like mini golf, what seems a guaranteed joyful afternoon with the fam inevitability morphs into a cornucopia of complaining, quarreling, damaged property, and possibly assault. (Yes, a cornucopia because Thanksgiving.)

What I’m saying is decorating for the holidays is awesome and twinkle lights make everything better and I am 100% for it all. But also, don’t be surprised if the lights don’t work in just the middle of the tree, and the kids bicker, and the dog is underfoot, and you start your period, and someone “helpfully” sprays festive spruce Febreeze on the trees until they’re literally dripping with the scent of chemical conifers. 

You may have to fight and get scrappy and forgive each other seventy times seven times. I just want you to know that these things are probably coming. Plan for chaos, broken ornaments, and broken hearts.

Also, you may be wise to plan for a six hour long power outage. Because that’s a thing that happened over here. Day two of decorating dawned sunny and windy, I went out and purchased a new TV (merry early Christmas to the grown ups in our house…but really the kids…and they’ll still get whatever rainbow unicorn baby glitter surprise pet it is they asked for, let’s be honest). The husband and I got the new TV in, arranged, and fired up. It was finishing it’s reboot process and we were jazzed to try it out, which is when the wind knocked out the power for six plus hours. Because 2020.

The good/bad news is that I was forced to tackle Mount Laundry. I’m happy/sad to report that I’ll have to revisit the decorating plans on that one because I folded it all in my dimly lit bedroom where it had been relocated due to Christmas. Don’t worry, though, I’ve already started another Mountain. It’s more of a molehill at this point, but I have great faith in my ability to ignore it until it either takes over the house or is lovely enough to place a star upon.

So, guys, when the power goes out and everything is unfinished, and all the batteries have died, and all of your candles have melted into one giant mass of hot wax on a plate in the middle of your table, take my advice: breathe deeply, look around, and take it all in. Look deeply at all of souls that have been left to your care. Gaze at the little hearts who spent the afternoon loudly playing with the Little People Nativity set (the one that inexplicably has 3 baby Jesuses) whilst listening to their father play his harmonica, something he doesn’t usually have time to do. Take it all in, in the candle light and the mixed up smells of sickly spruce combined with at least three other candle scents. Maybe pray a Rosary together since you’ve got the time. Take it in and appreciate it in all its imperfection and grubby goodness. Because that’s where the real holiday magic is, isn’t it? The twinkle lights will come back on. The ornaments will be hung in due time (and swept up when they’re broken). The holiday joy will happen in spite of all of the irritation, the ugliness, the inconvenience, and disappointment.

Somehow that’s just the kind of nostalgia you’ll need to warm the cockles of your heart while you secretly eat chips in the pantry. 

PS. The way we got the lights on the tree to work was that my husband literally punched the tree. He batted it around like a tabby cat, swatted it, and then buffeted it some more and the lights came on. So, you know…when in doubt, just punch things is what I’m saying. Hang in there, team. We’re gonna make it even if we have to punch our way to holiday cheer!

The Holiday Barometer: A Guide for the Discerning Adult

As a parent of small children, sometimes the days just run together and the calendar eludes me. I never know what day of the week it is, much less the month, and all of a sudden it’s a week till Christmas and I have no idea how I got here. If you’re like me and can’t keep up with a calendar, I have a solution. Instead of bothering with that boring Julian calendar, which is so lame anyway, why not try my method? It’s simple, really. All you have to do is to observe the biological and environmental markers that appear mid-November and increase in both frequency and intensity the closer you get to Christmas. 

 

The Signs and Symptoms of Imminent Festivity are pretty obvious once you know what to look for. They include but are not limited to:

 

1.) The discovery of Darth Vader in the Nativity Scene. This will begin as soon as you decorate, but you’ll know the holiday is nigh when Vader is joined by Boba Fett, Lighting McQueen, Grumpy, Princess Jasmine, and a shoe. O come let us adore Him, indeed. (At least Jasmine is geographically relevant…)

 

2.) Glitter in the diaper. Just as the presentation of crayon poop reflects the recent purchase of school supplies, so does glitter poop reflect (literally, in some cases) the coming of our Savior. You’ll know it’s the third week of Advent if there are actual strands of tinsel present.

 

3.) Pine needles in the diaper. This is only an accurate barometer if you have a real tree. The more needles in the diaper, the older your tree is…or maybe it’s just a reminder that you should water that thing. Either way it tells you something.

 

4.) The disappearance and subsequent rediscovery of cookies. These’ll go walk-about just as soon as you’ve said something like, “Don’t eat those cookies they’re for your father’s work put them down I said noooooo!” Later, you’ll find the cookies hidden in the couch cushions in the basement. I don’t pretend to know why there will be seven half-eaten cookies down there, but when you find them, examine them closely. If it’s an un-iced cookie, you’ve still probably got a couple of weeks to go. If the cookie has had icing licked off of it, then Christmas is probably tomorrow.

 

5.) The state of the Jesse Tree. If you happen to have a Jesse Tree around, how does it look? If it still looks bright and hopeful with carefully placed ornaments on it, it’s early December. If your Jesse Tree is scraggly, ornaments flung haphazardly, and you haven’t noticed any new ones appearing, it’s likely that you’re nearing the end of December. Congratulate yourself that you took some good advice and “calmed-the-Jesse-Tree-down” then go make your morning cup ‘o Advent Baileys and coffee.

 

6.) The State of your living room. Are your kids making snow angels out of packing peanuts? If yes, it’s mid-December. If you’re finding them in your underwear drawer and in your shoes and don’t care, Christmas is next week. If the packing peanuts are less like snow angels and more like “holy geez, what’d you do to your house?” Christmas is tomorrow.

 

7.) The cheese in the gift basket. If, while fluffing the bow on the basket of cookies for the neighbors, you discover a half-eaten piece of cheese in the cellophane, Christmas is probably still like two weeks out. If, by “basket” you really mean “silver coffee can that I’m pretending is Pinterest-y enough to reuse as gift packaging” then Christmas is one week out. If, upon discovery, you eat the cheese because it’s the first meal you’ve had all day (Bailey’s coffee, notwithstanding), Christmas is tomorrow.

 

 

See? Super-simple and way better than a regular calendar! You can thank me later…