If you're like most Christian parents, you enter the holiday season intent on focusing your family's celebrations on the "true meaning" of Christmas. We set up our nativity sets, bake birthday cakes for Jesus, and reenact the birth of the Savior so that our children aren't confused about what Christmas is about. Some of us even choose to keep Santa out of our holiday to prevent our children from losing sight of Jesus' birth.
But Santa or no Santa, most families find that the whole gift-giving commotion ends up fizzling our focus anyway. Even if Mom and Dad try to reign in the gift explosion, kids get oodles of presents from Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Bob and Aunt Susie, friends, and even neighbors. As a result, our visions of a meaning-filled Christmas get buried under all the wrapping paper, and by December 26, we start making promises to do things better next year.
In an effort to maintain some control over the lessons learned at Christmas, my husband and I have come up with a way of giving gifts that seems to work beautifully. Maybe you've tried limiting your giving to three gifts per child to echo the three gifts Jesus received from the Magi. But our idea takes this plan a step further. The three gifts themselves symbolize those that Jesus received from the wise men: "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh" (Matt. 2:11).
On Christmas morning, our immediate family takes time to reflect on why we celebrate Christmas. Each child receives three presents: one to represent gold, one to represent frankincense, and one to represent myrrh. As we open them, we talk about the special significance behind the gifts that Jesus received, and how they symbolize Jesus as King, as God, and as Savior.
Gifts of Gold
When Jesus was born, gold was even more valuable than it is today. It was a gift that was fit for a king or someone of the highest regard. What a great symbol it was for Jesus to receive such an offering from the wise men, as he is indeed the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Not only did the gold gift signify Jesus' kingly position, but in their book, Gifts for the King, (published by Priscilla and Aquilla Ministries and available at house2house.org), Bill and Leah Miller suggest that the gold may also have helped Mary and Joseph escape Bethlehem. It may have paid for the family's expenses and protection while they traveled secretly to Egypt to flee King Herod.
This Christmas, explain to your children how the wise men's gift of gold was significant to Jesus and his family. Then give each child her own "gold" gift. The present should be something of great importance to suggest how valuable your child is to your family.
Gold gifts often end up being our most expensive presents. For example, a gold gift might be the bicycle a child has been dreaming about, the CD player she has been saving for, or a piece of jewelry that seems appropriate. For an extra treat, wrap the "gold" gift in shiny gold paper with iridescent gold bows or ribbons.
Gifts of Frankincense
Frankincense is a white resin or sap taken from the wounds of a tree found in East Africa and Southern Arabia. Today, frankincense is known for its antiseptic, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. No wonder people in ancient times begged for it. It was probably one of the ancient world's first "cure-all" medicines, healing everything from infections to headaches. Surely Mary and Joseph could use the gift of frankincense with a new baby around.
Frankincense was also a sacred substance. In Exodus 30:34-37, God specifically requests that frankincense be used as sacred incense in his Temple and forbids the Israelites to use frankincense for anything besides his religious purposes. God commanded the Israelites to place frankincense in front of the Tent of Meeting to scent the place where he had promised to meet with them.
Years after that temple was destroyed, God sent his own Son, Jesus, to be a symbolic "Tent of Meeting" for all people. How appropriate, then, that the wise men brought frankincense as a gift for Mary's baby. Jesus had become our Emmanuel: God with us.
With that in mind, your child's "frankincense" gift should correspond with the way he "meets" with God. For example, you could give your child a new study Bible, a devotional book, a journal, or worship CD as a frankincense gift. A younger child might enjoy a Christian video or CD of children's praise songs. Eventually, your children will be able to identify the ways they most enjoy spending time with God and will be able to suggest future ideas for their frankincense gifts. As a symbolic touch, decorate frankincense presents with bright white paper and bows to represent the sacred white incense that Jesus received.
Gifts of Myrrh
Like frankincense, myrrh is also a resin taken from a special tree; however, rather than being white, myrrh is a dark, earthy color and has a rich aroma. In ancient times myrrh was used to scent anointing oils, perfumes, and embalming liquids. Today you can still find myrrh added to some soaps, oils, and lotions.
Miller notes that myrrh was more costly than gold or frankincense because it was needed for the sacred embalming process before a person's burial. Still, it seems strange to offer an embalming liquid as a gift to celebrate a baby's birth. But when you consider that Jesus was born to eventually die for our sins, the symbolism behind the treasured gift of myrrh becomes easier to understand. John 19:39-40 confirms that Nicodemus did, in fact, anoint Jesus with myrrh as part of his burial preparation.
I am not, however, suggesting that you give your child a gift suitable for her funeral. Instead, remind your children that even though Jesus started out as a little baby, he was sent to die on the cross to take the punishment for each of our sins. Then, as a family, be thankful for Jesus' sacrifice.
For a "myrrh" gift, present each child with something to "anoint" her body. For instance, you might give scented bath soaps, perfume or cologne, lotion, or shampoo. For younger children, choose colorful bath bubbles or playful tub soaps. To stretch your options a little farther, consider buying combs, hair products, comfy towels, or even make-up if it's age appropriate. If you look hard enough, you might even find something made with real myrrh. Wrap the myrrh gift with earth-toned paper to represent myrrh's rich dark color.
The Real Gift
With a little creativity, these three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh will help remind your children that Jesus is our King of kings, our Emmanuel, and our Sacrificial Lamb. When the extended family arrives bearing even more gifts, your children will already be focused on Christ and be able to receive additional presents gratefully and graciously. They might even enjoy telling other relatives about their "wise men"gifts.
Have fun with this approach. Your kids might not get it at first, but as the years go by, it will become a treasured family tradition; it has for us. No matter how many gifts come flooding through your door, the three gifts will help your whole family remember that the most important gift given on that first blessed Christmas came not from the wise men, but from God: the gift of his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Trina Conner Schaetz will celebrate the holidays with her family in Wisconsin.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Winter 2002, Vol. 15, No. 2, Page 30