Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Handed Down and Made by Hand

"Why do we give gifts at Christmas?" My friend Dustin asked this question as he led discussion in Sunday School this week. During Advent, our church has been studying the Advent Conspiracy, a campaign that calls Christians to make Christmas celebrations vivid and effective testaments to the Gospel. (Click here for the Conspiracy's most recent promo video). The tenets of the Advent Conspiracy are that we should "Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All" in ways that counter the glut of money, time, and anxiety most Americans spend on Christmas presents.

As our Sunday School class discussed ways to live out these ideals, I spoke about the gifts my parents used to make for me. In response to my recent post about traditions, many of you wrote that making Christmas presents helps you celebrate. As a child, my favorite gifts were things my mother or father made for me. The first Christmas I can remember, I awoke to a toy kitchen my father had built. Often, I would catch hints of these projects during the months leading up to Christmas. From a time before I was old enough to see over the kitchen table, I can remember marveling at the pieces of fabric and yarn that would eventually become Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Years later, I would sneak into the basement to peek at the doll's trunk my father was building, or I might catch a glimpse of calico that would somehow become a little dress by Christmas morning.

Making or buying handmade gifts certainly answers some of the Advent Conspiracy's calls. By making gifts for me, my parents spent far less money than most American parents, yet they gave me gifts I will always treasure for the time, care, and thoughtfulness they required.

Homemade, matching nightgowns, so Bethany can be just like Mama, 1987.
However, these happy reflections didn't quite answer Dustin's question. Can making gifts teach me about worship?  Can any kind of Christmas gift-giving help us experience and proclaim the Incarnation?

 Before I had an answer to these more difficult questions,  Jeremy spoke up from across the room. "I think giving gifts can teach us about the Incarnation," he said. "Ideally, any Christmas gift should remind us that Christ's willingness to live among us was a gift. But think about Bethany's story -- she saw signs of the gift long before it came. From the hints and signs in her house, she learned that good was coming, and that one day those bits and pieces would become something wonderful because her parents loved her. Maybe that's one way giving gifts can teach us about Christmas -- by reminding us that something more is coming from one who loves us."

The more I think about Dustin's question, the more I like Jeremy's answer.  Making a gift for someone requires the kind of love that God has for us: I should know the colors that catch her eye, the shape that will suit him best. I should notice that she shivers on our evening walks, or that he always plays that certain song after long days. Once I have found a need or desire I have the power to fulfill, I look for the finest materials and select the most skillful pattern. Then I work in secret, anxious to fill my friend with joy, but waiting for the proper season. Once finished and given, these gifts are one small way I can send some of myself with my friends--all so scattered and far. The gifts I make are signs of my hope that busy schedules and long miles will one day pass away, and we can enjoy all our work and rest side by side. Unlike God, I don't have the power the make that hope reality. However, the love that grounds the desire is divine.

Jackie learned the pattern as a girl in France.
This Christmas, I have scores of ideas for gifts that can help us recognize aspects of God's creative, generous image within us. However, some of my readers will soon be recipients of these gifts, and so I will save most of those ideas for the new year. Instead, I will share one project idea that is going to someone I am sure does not read this blog.

This gift is a pair of knitted slippers. I love knitting, in large part because it leaves the mind open for conversation or prayer. I transcribed the pattern from Jackie, my surrogate "grandma." Jackie came to America from France in the 1940s, and each Christmas I look forward to receiving a cup of tea and an hour of stories from her. I am excited to share this pattern with you because it could be the emblem for these ruminations of handmade gifts. Jackie once gave me a pair of these slippers, and I wrote the pattern down at her kitchen table last December. My notes, a strange composite of English and French, provide a very rough prophecy for the warmth the actual slippers will provide, and I love the idea that I am passing the pattern to you as it was passed down to me.

You can find the pattern by clicking here for Grandma Jackie's Slippers.

I think it has a rather pleasingly elfin look to it.
 I still have many gifts to finish before Christmas, and sometimes I think how much faster it would be to buy a gift I could put in my friend's hand today. For mere mortals, waiting can be difficult for the giver as much as for the receiver. I hope I am learning that in the patience and waiting it requires, making gifts offers yet another lesson in experiencing the slow hope of Advent.

What is the most meaningful handmade gift you have ever received or have given? Do you think giving gifts at Christmas can teach us anything about the Incarnation?


  1. I have told my sons over the years that Christmas is Jesus' birthday. We give gifts on birthdays, and since we cannot give Him gifts in physical terms, we give them to others. This serves as a reminder of the gifts we CAN give Him--our lives and service.

  2. I didn't speak up in Sunday School on Sunday, but one way my family celebrates the incarnation is through the words we speak when we give gifts at Christmas. Every gift that is given is first prefaced by a long explanation of why we chose this special thing and then we say these exact words, "I give you this gift because I love you and because of the gift that God gave us." It's a very real reminder of God's love for us and the REASON we give each other gifts.

  3. Thank you for a beautiful and thoughtful post. My friend made a weighted lap blanket for my autistic son, which helps him concentrate as he sits. We proceeded to lose it about 10 minutes later (yes, embarrassing and unbelievable). The next week, she made him another one. I was so very touched that not only did she make one for him in the first place, but she jumped to make a second one, which we still have. Money cannot buy friends like that, or gifts like that.

  4. Very good thoughts, Bethany. I'm currently working like crazy to finish all the gifts I want to make for people. I was (am!) feeling stressed out and thinking that I would be better off just going and buying something, so thank you for the timely reminder of why I am making these gifts.

    I like your thoughts about studying the person to whom you are giving a gift in order to learn just what it is they would want; that is what God did in sending Jesus. Now we have a high priest who knows exactly what we're facing and who can help us in our times of trouble.

  5. Oops, sorry. That was me, not Steve.

  6. Thanks for sharing those insights about why we give gifts. I'm in the midst of a handmade Christmas, and as the Mom in the house, I'm getting tired. I decided this year to fill the Christmas stockings with home made gifts, too. Usually I buy the stocking stuffers and its mostly junk, just to have something to fill them with. But this year I challenged myself to a create sustainable stocking stuffers for each family members Christmas stocking. (I'm documenting it on my blog.)

    I still have 10 days left so I have hope that I might finish on time. Thanks for the reminder that we give gifts to each other because He gave us the most precious gift of all.
    Merry Christmas