Catholic Activity: The Exchange of Gifts
Even the exchange of gifts, which is a "family event", can be Christ-centered. Here is a discussion on the customs, the timing of opening gifts, and the subject of Santa Claus.
Almost every family has unconsciously or consciously established a traditional time for opening the gifts. The gift exchange is always a "family event" — no one ever thinks of opening his gifts alone. This is an occasion when all are united, and there is community rejoicing over every present.
Christmas Eve is an appropriate time for the exchange of gifts, after the Christ-Child has been placed in the manger, and the special prayers before the crib — and a round of Christmas carols — are over. If the gifts are given out before the Midnight Mass, the children can concentrate more easily on the great mystery which is celebrated, when the Greatest Gift is given to all alike, even those who have received no material expression of Christmas love. And then, too, Christmas Day with its two additional Masses can be devoted more to the contemplation of the Christmas mystery and the demands of Christmas hospitality.
But other families like to wait until the return from Midnight Mass, when gifts are opened before the family retires for the rest of the night. Christmas morning remains the rule in still other homes as the time for the gift exchange.
In some homes, parents suggest that the children immediately choose one of their favorite gifts to be given to the poor, as a special sacrifice of gratitude to the Christ-Child — but a sacrifice done with a radiant face and a joyous spirit. Christmas gifts of clothing also provide opportunity for parents to introduce or encourage the lovely family custom of first wearing the new clothes to Church — as a sign of our gratitude for God's goodness and overflowing generosity towards us.
There has been great interest lately in the question of just who should bring the gifts at Christmas. Many families feel that the over-emphasis on Santa Claus greatly detracts from the central mystery of the feast, and they either make known the fact that the parents themselves are the givers, or in many families, the children are told that the Christ-Child Himself has bestowed the presents. Others restore the stately bishop's mitre and crosier to Santa Claus, and good St. Nicholas is the one who brings the children's toys and gifts — perhaps after a preliminary visit to see how the children are behaving on the eve of his feastday, December 5.
Now if religious customs like the above are carried out, the family gift-giving falls naturally into a subordinate place and is more easily given a spiritual significance. If the family decides to do away with Santa Claus, the richness of the religious home celebrations will more than satisfy the children. And if Santa Claus stays, he will play a lesser role in the celebration, a role more in keeping with the real meaning of the feast.
Activity Source: Twelve Days of Christmas, The by Elsa Chaney, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1955