In our busy modern lives, surrounded by consumerism and shallow sentiment, it's easy to forget what Christmas is really all about: eating until you fall into a meat-coma, existential gift anxiety and arguing about Brexit with your in-laws. And Jesus, obviously. But he barely gets a look in over the part-wonderful, part-maddening moments that make the average Christmas. It's hard to remember the reason for the season when you're up to your mistletoe in stress.
What Christians really need are coping strategies for some of the more trying aspects of Christmas, so that we can free up some headspace, as we celebrate his birth, to focus on Jesus. Or, at least, to avoid strangling a reindeer or punching an elf.
And one of the greatest causes of stress over Christmas is the giving and receiving of presents.
The problem: existential gift anxiety
There are two sides to this: giving and receiving. And it really is more blessed to give than to receive. Because receiving gifts is by far the most stressful. Mostly because each brightly-wrapped parcel you are handed by whoever is playing 'Santa' (and reading out "To Jonny, love Mum" as if it were one of the more beautiful poems of William Wordsworth) contains, along with the actual present, a requirement for the receiver to look delighted. This is the rule. Regardless of the gift you get, the thing society demands, the thing that separates us from the animals, is that your face convey genuine joy and gratitude at this moment. And you will forget how.
We are all unique, beautiful creations, and as such we all have our own unique, weird, heavily medicated grin we end up adopting throughout the entire festival of awkwardness that is any group gift-opening experience. You know: the face you pull when you're so desperate not to seem rude or ungrateful that you physically forget how to happy. Catastrophic Smile Failure (CSF) it's called by medical professionals at the North Pole. And, as you know, CSF (Oh, Lord, am I just baring my teeth at these people? What am I supposed to do with my eyebrows?) is usually accompanied by the horror that you've been saying the same phrase over and over again, like you've joined a very boring cult. "Oh, thank you! That's so lovely!" Again and again until cosmic enlightenment. Or death. Either will do.
Because, after a while, it's not just the disappointing gifts that bring on CSF. It starts when your mum has bought you a subscription to a premium dating site, gifted in a card that says "You're not getting any younger", or an aunt gets you a collection of the wit and wisdom of Harry Styles. But, eventually you won't be able to tell what you like. Because, like solitary confinement, hard drugs and enhanced interrogation, group gift openings ultimately make you question your own sanity. "Perhaps that Mark Driscoll book was a thoughtful gift for my pre-teen feminist daughter. Maybe I do want a Little Mix crop top. Maybe I am a Little Mix crop top..."
The other side of this, of course, is worrying that every gift you've given is the equivalent, for the receiver, of the baffling presents you've been given. Because, trust me, at least one of the gifts you've bought has fallen as flat as some you've received. If that had never occurred to you and is now causing you stress, you're welcome. Most likely, though, you've already spent the kind of time and energy Michelangelo spent on the Sistine Chapel ceiling worrying if a Toblerone really communicates how you feel about Doris in Accounting, or if spending 50p more on Dad's gift than Mum's makes you part of the Patriarchy. Giving is better than receiving. But only a little.
The solution: meditate on the Christmas story
The Christmas story is full of encouragement. God becomes flesh, good news comes into the world for all nations, and truly terrible gifts are given. If you're feeling bad about a present you've bought or received, just think of the Magi and Jesus.
Gold? That's basically money in an envelope. Or a gift token. Least. Thoughtful. Gift. Ever.
Myrrh? Spice for washing a corpse? Um, inappropriate. And a buzzkill. Nobody asks for that.
And what even is Frankincense? You know he's a baby, right?
"Wise" men. Ha.
So even the most famous group gift opening event in history was a little awkward. That's got to make you feel better. At least you didn't buy a pair of Crocs for the Son of God.
An here's the thing, though: everybody gets it. WE all struggle with this. They may not like the jumper you get them, and you might not love that set of deodorants. But the fact either of you bothered represents a triumph of love over awkwardness. Each of you has risked stress, disappointment and CSF on the off chance you might make the other a little happier. And that's not nothing. That's worth meditating on as an expression of Christ's selfless love in a world of distraction. That, dare we say it, is worth some gratitude.
Jonathan Langley is a Christian writer and journalist who also works for a mission agency.