A falling Christmas tree and the lessons of gifts


By Rev. Paul Graves

My memory is fresh about the second Sunday of Advent, 1969. As a young pastor, I was serving my first solo church appointment. Our congregation had decorated the sanctuary for Advent/Christmas, including a Christmas tree standing between the pulpit and the first row of pews.

As it happened, the district superintendent (my regional boss) and his wife were worshipping with us that morning. My sermon had to do with the commercialization of Christmas, and I was steamed up about it.

Partway through my sermon, the Christmas tree tipped over and fell to the floor.

We all were a bit embarrassed by this, but there was “OK, so what?” laughter also. After the service, my always-gracious boss greeted me with a grin and simply said, “Paul, you’re a really powerful preacher!” I’ve never forgotten the Sunday our Christmas tree fell.

With no Christmas tree in sight, I again feel the urge to get snarky about our commercial Christmas season. In my less gracious moments, it still drives me a bit crazy.

It’s now the day after Christmas 2022. Before Christmas Day, countless commercials shouted out “buy this for the one you love!” Everywhere we turned, we had endless opportunities to show our appreciation for someone we care about. Everywhere we turned, our cultural obsession with touchable, playable gifts nearly smothered us.

So Santa Claus came to town again. His “naughty-nice list” fits neatly into the hypergifting mentality in our culture. That list fits neatly into our unending dance with entitlement. Who’s worthy of our gifts? Who isn’t worthy? Unhealthy theology!

St. Nicholas, born around A.D. 280 in Turkey, was a benevolent man around whom legends of generosity eventually morphed into Santa Claus. Then, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” with its opening line, “’ Twas the night before Christmas,” was composed in 1822, and Santa Claus was a fixture in our culture’s capitalistic mind.

Christmas advertising began in the 1820s also, so buying gifts for Christmas has been a longtime practice. And it’s steamrolled over the real “reason for the season.”

Yet long before the naughty-nice list, Jesus came along with a radically different message: the Grace-based gift God offers isn’t based on entitlement, but on love. From his birth as God-on-Earth to his crucifixion proclamation of forgiveness, and to how his followers – at their best – try to reflect him, Jesus embodied love, not entitlement.

Folks, our understandings of the Christmas season are so out of balance with why Christmas is meant to be celebrated, which is another word for “honored.” Yet moments of honoring the birth of God are so often drowned out by the unending commercials begging us to “buy me!”

Those of us who seek to follow the shepherds, or even the wise men, to find the baby announced by the angels, can too easily get caught up in the season of ”entitlement.” Or how about ”meritocracy”?

Christmas is too often a season to decide who merits a gift – based on someone else’s evaluation. But God’s grace is lovingly given, not merited.

Our wrapped gifts are now unwrapped. I hope you didn’t toss your gifts out with the discarded wrapping. I also hope before you put your gifts away, you spent a few moments reflecting on who gave you those gifts. Consider your gifts and how you’re ready to receive them.

Did I get that gift because I’m entitled, or because I’m loved? Will I accept the gift(s) because I’m worthy, or because I’m loved?

Now, ask these same questions of your relationship with God (as you understand God). If ”being worthy” is your primary answer, please seek a God who loves you as you are!

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair of the Council on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist 

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