I always tell my kids that the true meaning of Christmas is receiving gifts.
Of course, we have it from the Lord himself that it is “more blessed to give than to receive.” And of course, a spoiled-rotten-brat Christmas in which a child is showered with presents but throws a fit because she didn’t get that special thing is like a demonic mockery of Christmas.
But the Christmas attitude I have seen most often in life, in years of plenty and years when we couldn’t afford much, is not like that at all: Kids look at the gifts of Christmas morning with sheer, grateful, intense, “I can’t believe this is happening” wonder.
When this spirit prevails, Christmas gift-receiving perfectly imitates the state we are in with regard to God. Grace is like Christmas: Extravagant, unmerited, and unending gifts poured out on us for no other reason than that God loves us.
So here are some ways to promote the virtue of receptivity at Christmas.
1: Share the Bible’s vision of receptivity.
The heroes of Advent and Christmas were all great receivers: John the Baptist tells us to prepare the way, the shepherds receive the Good News, Joseph and Mary received the baby, the world received its savior, and even Baby Jesus received gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The villains of Christmas are the bad receivers: The innkeeper who had no room for Jesus, and Herod who refused to receive the newborn king.
The first rule of receptivity is therefore “Don’t be a Christmas villain.” Receive him well; in confession, in Communion, and at Christmas.
2: Help the poor receive gifts and grace.
Theology of the body teaches us that love is self-giving — and self-giving naturally implies receiving.
So, during the Advent season, it helps a lot to involve children in giving so that they can learn receiving. There are many ways to do it: Through the Christmas Angel Tree at church, the Toys for Tots challenge, the Salvation Army bell-ringer — or by bringing toys that they don’t use to the thrift store.
When we do this, we always pray for those who will receive what we are giving — first, because they need grace as well as gifts, and, second, because it reminds the child that even the things we give are things we received and God means for them to benefit everyone.
3: Teach the fine art of waiting.
The Jesse Tree teaches it and the Four-Week Advent candle countdown reinforces it: The longer we wait for something, the more satisfying it is when it arrives.
Everyone has their Christmas morning traditions. Ours focus on waiting. We usually go to Midnight Mass, and that helps the kids sleep in a little. But then everyone waits in mom and dad’s room until everyone is awake, and any visitors arrive. (When my children complain that we have to wait, I tell them about the pope’s encyclical Wait-atum in Parentis Room-um, which I claim sets out the rule for Christmas morning waiting.)
We read the Christmas story from Luke before going downstairs. Then we go in age order, starting with the youngest, since they are the ones for whom waiting is hardest. Then we open gifts one benefactor at a time — all gifts from Aunt Claire, all gifts from mom and dad, etc. Waiting makes the gifts extra special.
4: Intentional giving teaches receptivity.
One of the best ways to help kids receive well is to help them give well.
In our house, rather than have all nine children give gifts to each sibling, we have our children choose a “Secret Santa” recipient to give a gift to, and then they have to make a gift that fits that person. By experiencing what it is like for others to receive well (or poorly) what they give, they learn to receive well (not poorly) what they get.
5: Practice gratitude.
We can take it on the authority of Scripture that “God loves a cheerful giver;” I think it naturally follows that God loves a cheerful receiver.
We open gifts one person at a time in our home. That means that all eyes are on the receiver. Everyone sees when mom opens a kitchen utensil and is overjoyed; when dad opens up a scarf and says, “I sure needed this!” and when older sister squeals with delight at something that doesn’t look delightful.
These lessons will become important as they open their gifts, which in our house are usually “Something to wear, something to read; something you want, and something you need.” After you receive, you thank; with a hug for those in the room, or with a note to those far away.