How to stop stealing gifts this Christmas

Published 1:30 pm Saturday, December 7, 2013

by Brandon Robbins

I can’t stand the game Yankee Swap. You might know it as White Elephant or Nasty Christmas or some other colorful name. It’s the game where everyone brings a gift, and as you go around the circle, you can either open a present from the pile or steal one that someone else has already opened. And I don’t like it.

For starters, it’s not easy to buy a gift. Christmas is a time when we give gifts to those we care about, gifts that reflect our relationship or that we know the person would really enjoy. But when you have to buy a $20 gift with no real idea of who will receive it, there is little room for thoughtfulness.

Second, it’s mean. The whole point of the game is to steal something that someone else desires. If everyone just opened the presents in the pile, the game would be boring. So, to spice things up, you take a gift out of someone else’s hands – even if it’s something you know they really love.

But more than either of these reasons, the one reason I really don’t like this game, the reason I opt out every time someone brings it up, is because it’s wasteful.

I was part of a church once where an entire Sunday School class decided to play. Each person in this class of over 40 people was to bring a $20 gift. What everyone failed to realize was that, when it was all said and done, they had spent over $800 on gifts that no one really wanted.

Just imagine what $800 could have done. Imagine how many people could have been fed? How many lives could have been impacted in relief to places like the Philippines? How many families could have been helped through the financial difficulties of the Christmas season – not even buying toys, but just paying their bills.

Now, whenever I challenge this game, the response I get is always the same: “We’re just having a little fun!”

I even hear: “It’s not any fun if we just write a check to help the needy.”

How did we get here? How did Christmas become all about this? Where did we lose our way?

When we look at the Christmas story, the only place we even see the idea of gifts is with the Wise Men. But to whom are the wise men bringing gifts? Jesus. We never hear anything about the Wise Men exchanging gifts among themselves. We don’t even hear of them bringing gifts to the shepherds or Mary and Joseph. Everything they do, every facet of the Christmas story is about Jesus. In the Christmas story, Christmas isn’t about “having fun” or opening presents; and it’s especially not about stealing from one another for mere entertainment. It’s about Jesus!

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I love presents. I love fun. It’s my favorite time of the year.  But when I hear of people spending hundreds of dollars on things nobody wants because that’s the only way they think they can have fun, my heart aches and I think we’ve lost the point.

For many of us, the idea of spending $800 on a Yankee Swap may sound like someone else’s ridiculous story. It’s absurd and appalling, but we would never do it!

But, let’s be honest. How many times have we been a part of a Yankee Swap that even wasted $200? Or how many times have we felt that our children wouldn’t be happy this Christmas because we just hadn’t purchased them enough? How many times have we found ourselves wasting money because we are convinced that it makes Christmas better?

When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that, at least in our actions, Christmas is often about anything but Jesus.

What if we could do things differently, though? What if we could experience even greater joy, while also making an even greater difference? What if we could find a way to actually give gifts to Jesus this year instead of just exchanging them with each other? And what if it didn’t mean that we had to totally stop giving to each other in the process?

Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40). In other words, whenever we give to those who are hungry, sick, and hurting, we give to Jesus.

So, maybe this year, instead of buying a bunch of gifts for Yankee Swap at your office Christmas party, you use that money to support a local food ministry. And in order to still do something fun together, you all go together to serve at that food ministry.

Or maybe you and your family decide to spend less on gifts and use that money to help a family in need in your church or your community. And in order to still have presents to open Christmas morning, you make gifts for each other, or have fun activities planned for Christmas Day. (I’m pretty sure this is why Pinterest was created.)

If you’re willing to be creative, the possibilities are endless. And I guarantee you the experience is so much better than opening up a bunch of gifts you’re going to forget about in a few months.  I mean, think about it, off the top of your head, can you even remember five things you got for Christmas last year? But I bet you’ll never forget the faces of the people who have clothes to get them through the cold of winter because you decided not to buy an extra new coat for yourself.

That’s why, this Christmas, at Courtland United Methodist Church, we are doing our second annual Christmas offering. Throughout the month of December, we encourage the people of our church to spend more time thinking of meaningful, creative ways to show their love, and less money on presents. We challenge them to take what they would have spent on presents and use that instead to make a real difference in someone’s life this Christmas. Every penny that is given to our Christmas offering will go directly to the food ministries we do within our church, our work with the Courtland Community Center, or to help those who are struggling within our church and beyond.

Last year, we saw dozens of lives changed through the impact of this special offering.  And because of that, it was truly a Christmas none of us will ever forget.

Christmas can be about something so much more! It’s supposed to be. So may you celebrate Christmas differently this year. May you make Christmas all about Jesus. May you take some of the ideas above and shape them, mold them, adapt them to fit your family. And may you watch as God does something truly amazing in and through you this Christmas!

Brandon Robbins is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or